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ISSUE 118 FEBRUARY / MARCH 2017 UK £3.75 USA $7.99 CANADA $8.


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Personal identity
Moral certainty
Richard Rorty

Talking about
Human Rights
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Philosophy Now ISSUE 118 Feb/Mar 2017
Philosophy Now, EDITORIAL & NEWS
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4 Human Rights and Wrongs Rick Lewis
London SE14 5NQ 5 News
United Kingdom
Tel. 020 7639 7314
18 The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights Your copy of this essential human rights document
39 Interview: Anthony Gottlieb
Editor-in-Chief Rick Lewis Grant Bartley asks him about Enlightenment philosophy
Editors Anja Steinbauer, Grant Bartley
Digital Editor Bora Dogan HUMAN RIGHTS
Graphic Design Grant Bartley, Katy
Baker, Anja Steinbauer 6 Is There a Human Right to Internet Access?
Book Reviews Editor Teresa Britton Jesse Tomalty considers natural versus legal rights
Film Editor Thomas Wartenberg
Marketing Manager Sue Roberts 9 Hens, Ducks and Human Rights in China
Administration Ewa Stacey, Katy Baker Vittorio Bufacchi & Xiao Ouyang discuss linguistic differences
Advertising Team
Jay Sanders, Ellen Stevens 12 The Absolute In-Practice Right Against Torture Ian Fishback argues that pure theory cannot make torture okay
UK Editorial Board
Rick Lewis, Anja Steinbauer,
Bora Dogan, Grant Bartley
Human Rights 14 What Are Human Rights?
Tim Dare asks where they come from and how far they can go
US Editorial Board A timely reminder, pp.6-23
Dr Timothy J. Madigan (St John Fisher 20 I Hate You, My Lovely France!
College), Prof. Charles Echelbarger, Hamid Andishan on why Sartre distrusted the UN Declaration

Prof. Raymond Pfeiffer, Prof. Massimo

Pigliucci (CUNY - City College), Prof. 22 Richard Rorty on Rights
Teresa Britton (Eastern Illinois Univ.) Patrícia Fernandes on a pragmatic view of human rights
Contributing Editors
Alexander Razin (Moscow State Univ.) GENERAL ARTICLES
Laura Roberts (Univ. of Queensland)
David Boersema (Pacific University) 25 Moral Certainty
UK Editorial Advisors Toni Vogel Carey on the evolution of a curious legal concept
Piers Benn, Constantine Sandis, Gordon

Giles, Paul Gregory, John Heawood 28 “Will the real Mr Bowie please stand up?”
US Editorial Advisors Stefán Snævarr uses Parfit to see Bowie, and vice versa

Prof. Raymond Angelo Belliotti, Toni

Vogel Carey, Prof. Walter Sinnott- 32 The Virtue of Shared Experience
Armstrong, Prof. Harvey Siegel David Rönnegard tells us why sharing is living
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Love and Revolution p.54 February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 3
Editorial Human Rights & Wrongs
or over forty years the human rights organisation Jesse Tomalty begins our special section by asking whether
Amnesty International has coordinated a vast worldwide there’s a human right to internet access. She uses this question
network of volunteers called the Urgent Action Network. to explore the nature and justification of human rights in
If they hear of anybody anywhere in the world who has been general, and in particular the important distinction between
arrested for the peaceful expression of their political views and natural rights and legal rights. Tim Dare delves into the nature
who they consider to be in imminent danger of execution or of human rights claims and obligations, and urges us to resist
torture, they immediately alert members of the network, who ‘human rights inflation’ which carries the risk of all rights
respond en masse with swift, courteous letters and emails to the being taken less seriously.
responsible officials urging that the detainee be released or at Some say that human rights reflect the values of the West
least that their rights in custody be fully respected. I was a rather than being truly universal, and that this undermines
member of this network many years ago. If you’ve ever tried to their applicability in a country like China. Vittorio Bufacchi
get a response from me to an urgent email you’ll realise that I and Xiao Ouyang respond to this in their article looking at the
probably wasn’t the ideal person for this, but I did my best. I way the UN Declaration was translated and interpreted in
found that one problem you face when writing such letters is China. Hamid Anishan’s article on Sartre examines a related
that you are writing to officials who may not be remotely suspicion: that the rhetoric of human rights is a tool of
enthused by the notion of human rights. How then to convince colonialism or at best is blind to the injustices of colonialism
them to treat their prisoner well? You can point to the detainee’s and the need to correct those injustices. Is this suspicion
legal rights under the laws of their country; you can remind the justified? Sartre, it seems, never fully made up his mind, and it
officials of their country’s signature on the UN’s Universal exposed a conflict between his existentialist commitment to
Declaration of Human Rights; you can appeal to their sense of individualism and his political sympathy for collectivism.
compassion, or fair play, but in the end you know that none of Trump said during his election campaign that he was in
these things can really restrain their behaviour. How then to favour of waterboarding “and worse.” Nonetheless, if there is
convince them? By appeals to Kant or John Stuart Mill? Few one human right that most would consider essential and
functionaries of authoritarian regimes really care. Yet there is absolute, it is the right not to suffer torture. During his time as
considerable evidence that such letter-writing campaigns do a serving US Army officer, Ian Fishback took a public stand
indeed work. Amnesty International certainly believe that, and against the use of torture during interrogations. Writing for
in support of this belief sometimes circulate thank you letters this issue he argues that while justifications for torture can be
from recently released prisoners. The main reason for the effec- put forward relating to farfetched hypothetical situations, in
tiveness of such campaigns appears to be this: the officials practice the arguments against torture are unassailable.
receiving the letters become aware that people around the world Patrícia Fernandes examines what the American pragmatist
are watching their actions. Even the nastiest little dictatorship Richard Rorty had to say about human rights. Rorty believed
generally has some regard for its international image. When the that trying to rationally justify human rights is impossible so we
letters and emails start rolling in, they tread more carefully. should concentrate on what he called ‘sentimental education’.
All this started me wondering about the foundations and justi- This sounds defeatist, but on reflection it reminds me of David
fications of human rights, which is the theme of this issue. What Hume’s idea of sympathy as the basis of morality. If enough of
exactly are human rights, and what underpins them? Where do us feel a normal human concern for other people then this can
they come from? Are they invented or discovered? Are they local be the justification – and is in fact the only justification
to different cultures, or truly universal? This is philosophy at the required – for attempts to ensure their wellbeing through the
sharp end. Philosophy of mind and aesthetics pose fascinating structure of international human rights agreements.
and important questions, but lives do not generally depend on The most famous such agreement – and nearly all of the
the answers. Yet every day innocent men, women and children articles in our special section refer to it – is the UN Universal
suffer dreadful wrongs, often at the hands of their own govern- Declaration of Human Rights. Its adoption by most of the
ments, and the question is what we should do about it. So I’ve world’s nations in 1946, in a period riven by paranoia and
wanted for a long time to put together an issue of Philosophy Now ideological conflict, is surely one of the most astonishing and
exploring human rights from a range of angles and perspectives, impressive achievements in the entire history of world
and this, finally, is it. I was delighted by the number of philoso- diplomacy. We have printed the text of that Declaration in full.
phers who volunteered to contribute – far more than we could It is very short, and everyone on this planet should read it.
print – and I’m very grateful to all of them. Know your Declaration rights!

4 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

• Irish President calls for more philosophy in
schools • Judge rules on chimpanzee rights

• Derek Parfit and Zygmunt Bauman dead •
News reports by Anja Steinbauer and Katy Baker.

Derek Parfit (1942-2017) Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) option of studying philosophy and educa-
The philosopher Derek Parfit died on New Zygmunt Bauman, a prolific Polish-born tors are also exploring the possibility of
Year’s Day, aged 74. Parfit is best known intellectual, has died at the age of 91 at his establishing philosophy for children as a
for using imaginative thought experiments home in Leeds, England. Bauman’s work subject within primary schools.
in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons to explored ideas about identity, consumerism
show problems with the concept of and globalisation. He was a controversial Textbook Troubles
personal identity. One thought experiment figure in Poland for having served as an In Morocco a new school textbook caused
looks at what might happen if you were to officer in a Stalinist-era military organisa- a stir by describing philosophy as a
step into a teletransporter. In this device, tion, the Internal Security Corps, but perversion and blasphemy. A passage in
your body is first scanned atom-by-atom gained a worldwide reputation as a versatile Manar At-Tarbia Al-Islamiya, intended
and then completely destroyed. But the and humane interdisciplinary thinker. for first year baccalaureate students,
information is transmitted somewhere else, Bauman wrote more than fifty books, all refers to philosophy as “a production of
say to a corresponding teleportation device strongly philosophical in approach, human thought that is contrary to Islam”
on Mars, where you are exactly recreated including Modernity and the Holocaust, in and as “the essence of degeneration.”
using local materials. Some people might which he described the Holocaust as an Philosophy teachers reacted with outrage
see this simply as a way of travelling at vast outcome of industrialisation and ratio- and organized protest sit-ins, according
speeds; the person on Mars who is just like nalised bureaucracy: “It was the rational to The Education
you, is so because they are you. Not so, says world of modern civilization that made the Ministry defended the book, saying that
Parfit. To explain he asks us to imagine Holocaust thinkable.” Bauman’s concept of the controversial passage was intended as
that you go into the device again, except ‘liquid modernity’ was an attempt to part of a reasoning exercise
this time it malfunctions. You appear on account for what he believed to be a loss of
Mars as normal, but the device on Earth identity in our contemporary world. Animal Persons
fails to destroy your body and it now seems Constant change means that individuals are A judge in Argentina has ruled that a
as if there are two of you. This also opens without frames of reference or lasting chimpanzee has rights under the law. The
up the possibility of there being hundreds human relationships, as Bauman described judge consequently ordered Cecilia the
of replicas of you, with no way for us to say in publications such as Liquid Times and chimpanzee to be released from Mendoza
which is the ‘real’ you. Each shares all your Liquid Modernity: “In a liquid modern life Zoo, where she lived without a
memories, which is a blow to the idea that there are no permanent bonds, and any companion. The Association of Profes-
memory anchors identity. Parfit aims to that we take up for a time must be tied sional Lawyers for Animal Rights
show that any time we try to produce a loosely so that they can be untied again, as (AFADA) had filed the case, arguing that
criterion for personal identity, it fails and quickly and as effortlessly as possible, when the conditions of Cecilia’s confinement
what matters instead is the relation of circumstances change.” were damaging to her health.
mental continuity and connectedness. This is an historic judgement in recog-
Reasons and Persons focused on personal Teaching Philosophy in Ireland nising the rights of apes. AFADA had previ-
identity, rationality and ethics. Later Parfit Irish President Michael D. Higgins has ously sought a court ruling to release Sandra
continued to write on ethics in On What done something very few politicians do: he the orangutan from Buenos Aires Zoo,
Matters, an objective theory of ethics that has given the thumbs-up to the value of arguing that she was a ‘non-human person’
involved a synthesis of three major ethical philosophy in schools. Referring to it as a due to her advanced mental abilities. This
theories (Kantianism, consequentialism “path to a humanistic and vibrant demo- reasoning, and therefore the potential status
and contractarianism). The book became cratic culture,” Higgins and his wife of ‘non-human personhood’ would arguably
well known and much discussed while still Sabina, a philosophy graduate, have called extend not only to other great apes
circulating in manuscript form before it for the expansion of the curriculum to (orangutans, gorillas and bonobos), but also
was finally published in 2011. include philosophy. “The teaching of to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and
On the subject of his death Parfit philosophy,” Higgins said in November, porpoises). Professor Thomas I. White of
wrote: “My death will break the more “is one of the most powerful tools we have Loyola Marymount University explains:
direct relations between my present expe- at our disposal to empower children into “The scientific evidence is so strong for the
riences and future experiences, but it will acting as free and responsible subjects in intellectual and emotional sophistication of
not break various other relations. This is an ever more complex, interconnected, dolphins that there simply is no question
all there is to the fact that there will be no and uncertain world.” that they are ‘nonhuman persons’ who
one living who will be me.” (R&P, 281-82) Irish 12 to 16-year-olds now have the deserve respect as individuals.”

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 5

Human Rights
Is There A Human Right To
Internet Access?
Jesse Tomalty considers what human rights are and how they’re justified.

few months ago there was a spate of headlines equivocation, however, because legal human rights and natural
announcing that the UN had made internet access a rights are different sorts of moral entities, with different roles.
human right. It turns out that this claim was rather We can therefore ask both whether there is a natural right to
misleading. What the UN did was pass a resolution internet access and whether there ought to be a legal human
emphasizing the importance of internet access for the fulfill- right to it.
ment of many human rights. The resolution called for states to As said, natural rights are universal moral rights thought to
take measures to work towards universal access to the internet, be held by all humans simply in virtue of their being human. As
and it condoned heavy restrictions on access to content on the such, they must be grounded in some morally relevant feature(s)
internet as a violation of human rights (see of what it is to be human. Although there is no consensus on
Internet_Statement_Adopted. pdf). However, it does not follow what these features are, the dominant and most plausible view
from this that there is now a human right to internet access. is that natural rights are grounded in fundamental interests
Something can enable the fulfillment of human rights without shared by all, or at least the vast majority, of humans. On this
itself being a human right. For example, having shoes enables view, there is a natural right not to be arbitrarily killed, because
a number of human rights, such as the right to freedom of move- everyone has an important interest in not being killed; there is
ment and the right to an adequate standard of living; but it a natural right not to be tortured, because everyone has an impor-
would be very strange indeed to say that there is a human right tant interest in not being tortured; there is a natural right not
to shoes. Conversely, interference with people’s enjoyment of to be forced into slavery, because everyone has an important
some good can constitute a violation of their rights without that interest in not being enslaved; and so on.
good being a human right. For example, it would be a violation With this in mind, it’s difficult to see how there could be a
of the right to privacy if the government read people’s credit natural right to internet access, because the interest in having
card bills without their consent; but there is no specific human access to the internet is not sufficiently fundamental. How could
right not to have one’s credit card bills read. Nonetheless, if it be, given its historical contingency? Thousands of years ago,
internet access really is as important as the UN resolution sug- humans had interests in not being killed, tortured, or enslaved,
gests, maybe it should be considered a human right. Popular and it’s reasonable to suppose that humans will have such inter-
opinion seems to support this view. According to a survey con- ests thousands of years from now (assuming there still are any
ducted in 2012 by the Internet Society, 83% of the more than humans). But it’s a stretch to say that the ancient Greeks, for
10,000 respondents from twenty different countries agreed that example, had an interest in having internet access, given that
‘Access to the internet should be considered a basic human right’ they couldn’t even conceive of this technology. And we can’t
( GIUS2012 -GlobalData- know whether humans in the future will have such an interest:
Table-20121120_0.pdf). they might not if the internet is replaced by some other, more
Despite popular opinion, I doubt that access to the internet powerful, technology. Natural rights are supposed to be held
can appropriately be characterized as a human right (let alone universally by all humans simply in virtue of being human. It there-
a basic one). To see why, we need to consider what human rights fore doesn’t make sense to say that there is a natural right to
are and how they’re justified. internet access.
Interestingly though, it doesn’t follow from this that there
Natural & Legal Rights shouldn’t be a legal right to internet access. Unlike natural rights,
We can begin by clearing up an ambiguity in the use of the term legal rights are social constructs. Natural rights either exist or
‘human right’. Sometimes when people talk about human rights, they don’t. There is no sense in asking whether there ought to
what they’re referring to are the legal or quasi-legal rights artic- be a particular natural right, since this is not up to us to decide.
ulated in international human rights documents, such as the Natural rights have a moral reality that is beyond our ability to
United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the manipulate. By contrast, the content of legal rights is up to us.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Of course, not all of us have a say over what legal rights there
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural are, but the point is that their content is decided by people, not
Rights. Let’s call these ‘legal human rights’. Other times when discovered. So even though a right to internet access isn’t cur-
people talk about human rights, what they are referring to are rently included in international human rights legislation, it nev-
natural rights – the universal moral rights taken to be held by ertheless makes sense to ask whether there ought to be one. And
all humans simply in virtue of being human. Much of the time in order to ascertain whether there ought to be a legal human
people talking about human rights are actually equivocating right to internet access, we need to consider how the contents
between these distinct concepts. It’s important to avoid this of legal human rights are justified.

6 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017


February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 7

Human Rights
Legal Rights Are Not Natural Rights
It is sometimes assumed that legal human rights are just legal
expressions of natural rights, and that the question of whether
there ought to be a legal right to some good therefore depends
entirely on whether there is a natural right to it. On this view,
the fact that there is no natural right to internet access settles
the question of whether there ought to be a corresponding legal
right. We should, however, reject this view. First, when we look
at the actual content of international human rights legislation,
we find that it is both wider and more specific than that of nat-
ural rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights includes a right to a nationality as well as a right to form of expression and freedom of association. The internet is now
and join trade unions. Nationality and trade unions are both his- perhaps the most important platform for the expression of opin-
torically contingent, and therefore cannot be the objects of nat- ions and the spread of information, and provides a multitude of
ural rights. It might be argued that these rights should not, then, opportunities for a wide variety of forms of association.
be included among legal human rights. But why should we think It might be argued that without internet access people can
this in the absence of some good reason for thinking of legal still enjoy the freedom to express themselves and to associate,
human rights as simply legal expressions of natural rights? assuming that they can still gather in public places, publish their
Furthermore, legal human rights have a very different role opinions in newspapers, and so on. However, the rights to free-
to natural rights, and so it’s not clear why we should think they dom of expression and freedom of association do not require
have identical content. Natural rights are moral claims held by merely that right-holders have at least some opportunity to express
each human against all moral agents. By contrast, legal rights themselves and to associate. Rather, they are fulfilled only to the
are legal claims that individuals have specifically against the extent that people have adequate opportunities to express them-
states to whose power they are subject, and which act as con- selves and to associate. To arbitrarily prevent people from pub-
straints on the sovereignty of those states. To say that legal lishing their opinions in all but one little-read newspaper would
human rights are just legal expressions of natural rights is to say constitute a violation of their right to freedom of expression
that only natural rights can serve these functions. But why should despite their retaining some opportunity to express themselves.
we accept this? It doesn’t seem particularly problematic to sup- Likewise, to arbitrarily prevent people from joining all but one
pose that all individuals should have legal claims against their association, organization, party, or club would be a violation of
governments not to be stripped of their nationality or not to be their right to freedom of association, despite their retaining some
prevented from forming and joining trade unions. But we have opportunity to associate with others. Exactly what constitutes
seen that such rights cannot be natural rights. adequate opportunity and ability to exercise one’s freedom of
Although legal human rights are not simply legal expressions expression and association is an important and difficult question;
of natural rights, then, there is an important connection between but in view of the tremendous importance of the internet it seems
them: both natural and legal human rights are grounded in fun- reasonable to hold that to prevent someone from accessing the
damental interests shared by all humans. The difference is that internet is to deprive her of adequate opportunities to exercise
legal human rights can include rights derived in a particular her freedom of expression and association. It looks as though a
social and historical context from more basic rights. The legal legal human right to internet access might therefore be deriv-
right to nationality, for example, is not grounded in a fundamen- able from the more basic natural rights to freedom of expres-
tal interest in nationality held by all humans, since there have sion and freedom of association, in the same way that a legal
not always been nations and there might not always be nations. human right to nationality can be derived from the more basic
Instead, people have an interest in having a nationality because natural right to freedom of movement.
in the contemporary world having a nationality is instrumental However, there is an important difference between nationality
for the fulfillment of other, more basic interests, some of which and the internet. It is impractical to have international laws that
ground natural rights. Without a nationality one cannot obtain constantly need to be updated. As such, legal human rights not
a passport, for example; and without a passport, one’s freedom only need to be of great importance now, but also for the foresee-
of movement is severely limited. Freedom of movement is able future. So the lightning-fast pace of technological progress
arguably a fundamental interest shared by all humans, which makes the internet, and consequently a legal right to it, much more
therefore grounds a natural right to freedom of movement. This precarious. The fact that there is no natural right to internet access
interest also provides grounds for a basic legal right to freedom does not preclude the possibility that there ought to be a legal
of movement, from which we can derive a more specific legal human right to it, since internet access is nowadays incredibly
right to nationality. important for the fulfillment of other human rights. But given the
likelihood of the internet becoming obsolete in the not-so-distant
Internet Access Rights? future, I’m inclined to think that access to it doesn’t quite warrant
Could a legal human right to internet access be justified in this the status of an international legal human right.
way? The interest in having internet access is certainly grounded © DR JESSE TOMALTY 2017
in more basic interests, and some of those interests are the sort Jesse Tomalty is Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of
that ground natural rights; for example, the interests in freedom Bergen, Norway. She teaches courses in ethics and political philosophy.

8 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Human Rights
Hens, Ducks, &
Human Rights In China
Vittorio Bufacchi & Xiao Ouyang discuss some philosophical & linguistic difficulties.

hina has long been a soft target for Western human Three Ways to Think About Human Rights in China
rights activists. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, How to make human rights discourse intelligible and construc-
between 1966 and 1976, was attacked at the time and tive in China is a serious challenge not only for international
is still demonized today for the innumerable viola- lawyers and heads of state, but also for human rights philoso-
tions of fundamental human rights that then occurred. In 1989 phers. Different philosophical approaches to solving this conun-
the Western media reported how the pro-democracy protest in drum have been put forward over the years, albeit with scarce
Tiananmen Square was allegedly crushed by tanks of the Chi- results, at least so far.
nese army, with great but unknown human costs. And Western One approach is to accept that ‘human rights’ is fundamen-
political leaders rarely miss an opportunity to raise human right tally a Western concept, but notwithstanding its origin, one that
concerns with Chinese counterparts during rounds of diplo- has universal validity and appeal.
matic talks. But as illustrated by the 2016 meeting between Pres- The idea here is for the West to unapologetically stick to its
ident Obama and President Xi Jinping during the G20 summit philosophical guns and hope that through a mix of globaliza-
in Hangzhou, these talks continually fail to generate consensus tion and intercultural education the Chinese authorities and
on the question of human rights, despite productive agreements people will one day see the light and embrace the human rights
being reached on many other issues. It is as if the Western lan- project. If education can do all – l’éducation peut tout, as Helvétius
guage of human rights is untranslatable or unintelligible to the famously claimed in 1772 – imagine what human rights educa-
Chinese; or as the Chinese proverb says, it’s a case of a hen talk- tion could achieve in China.
ing to a duck – ji tong ya jiang, 鸡同鸭讲. That human rights as we understand them in the West are
essentially a Western construct cannot be denied. Yet accepting

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 9

Human Rights
this can lead to undesirable complications. One of the great have a good track record. Enlightened Westerners, including
appeals of human rights philosophy is its alleged universality, many philosophers, have a tendency to remain in their concep-
but presented under a Western banner, the universality of tual comfort zone, albeit being modestly aware of the limita-
human rights can transform into thinly-veiled cultural imperi- tions of their (sometimes non-existent) knowledge of Chinese
alism, and the noble goal of promoting human rights into a stick or other intellectual traditions. The truth is that modern West-
used to beat non-Western cultures. We will return to the ques- ern conceptions of universal values are fundamentally cultur-
tion of universality below. ally specific, just as modern Western geographical terminology
A second strategy is to suggest that human rights are, and is fundamentally Eurocentric. ‘East’ and ‘West’, not to men-
always have been, part of Chinese culture, and all that needs tion the exotically-named ‘Far East’, reveal more than may first
doing is to remind the Chinese, and us, of the beliefs we share. appear, since they place Europe as the geometrical point of ref-
The premise of Micheline R. Ishay’s anthology The Human erence for the world. But Westerners may not be surprised to
Rights Reader (2007) is to provide an historical journey through find out that the country they call ‘China’ is known to its inhab-
the idea of human rights in both secular and religious tradi- itants and in the Sinosphere as ‘Zhongguo’, 中国 – literally ‘the
tions, among other stops visiting Hammurabi’s Code in ancient Central Kingdom’. Perhaps before interrogating China for
Babylon; the Hebrew Bible; the Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist neglecting human rights, we should ask ourselves what we in
rights traditions; and of course Confucianism. The core intu- the West have been neglecting about China.
ition explored here is that human rights represents the overlap- The point is not to endorse a naïve cul-
ping ethical consensus between different cultural, religious, and tural relativism, but to question the idea of
philosophical traditions. ‘universality’ underpinning human rights
This approach is both attractive and instructive. The appar- concepts and other ‘universal’ moral values.
ent convergence of different traditions in the history of ideas In both the Chinese and Western intellec-
undoubtedly demands closer scrutiny and general support. Yet tual traditions the idea of ‘universality’ itself
the suspicion remains that one can always find what one wants is not problematic. However, ‘moral univer-
in the history of ideas if only one looks hard enough and is not salism’ is a typical Western approach, just as
afraid to be flexible in one’s interpretations. Retrospective read- relativism reflects the Chinese spirit as exem-
ings in the history of political thought have turned Plato into a plified in Daoism. But even if the idea of
champion of democracy (as suggested by James Kastely) and Aris- human rights does refer to something uni-
totle into a liberal (as recommended by Martha Nussbaum); so versal (through, for example, the Kantian idea
why can’t Confucius be read as a proto-human rights advocate? of reason as the foundation for morality), this
These readings are as misleading as they are appealing. The truth idea has to be concretized into particular activities within spe-
is that human rights as we understand them in the West today do not cific contexts. In other words, even if what is denoted by the Eng-
exist in historical Chinese culture. No amount of soul searching lish term ‘human rights’ refers to an idea applicable to all human
or philosophical investigation will uncover the notion of human beings despite differences in race, gender, cultural background,
rights in the great Chinese philosophical traditions. religion, etc, this does not in the least indicate that all the practi-
That is why we think a new, radical method needs to be devel- cal applications of this idea must be completely identical.
oped when engaging with China on human rights, which can
be considered a synthesis between the two positions just high- A Linguistic Turn
lighted. So instead of shoehorning a Western concept into a In the West we may draw strength from the fact that because
Chinese context, or searching for elusive human rights ideas China is a signatory to the UN Universal Declaration of Human
where they never existed, we suggest that the key lies in a lin- Rights it is legally bound under international law to uphold and
guistic turn: the way forward is to abandon the Western termi- respect human rights. However, we are engulfed by uncertainty
nology of human rights, and appeal instead to aspects of Chi- whenever international laws concerning human rights are vio-
nese philosophy that can perform a similar role, although the lated by China, and the best response we can muster is to apply
term ‘human rights’ is never used. As the Daoist would say, diplomatic pressure (whatever that is) on the culprit state.
sometimes it’s best to leave things unsaid. Part of the problem concerns the language of human rights.
There is a hermeneutic fallacy in the legal argument – in other
The Universality of Human Rights words, a fallacy concerning interpretation. That is, although it
Universality is arguably human rights’ greatest asset. What was is not wrong to assume that there is only one Universal Decla-
put forward by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 ration of Human Rights, dating back to 1948, it is incorrect to
December 1948 was not just a Declaration of Human Rights, but assume that all the signatories signed an identical document.
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the universal- This Universal Declaration exists only via various interpreta-
ity we attach to human rights is not merely a description based tions, including being translated into many different languages:
on the fact that this Declaration tried to be as geographically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most trans-
inclusive as was feasible at the time. Instead, universality speaks lated document in the world. It requires a gargantuan leap of
to a normative quality: that is, their foundational moral nature is faith, and a good dose of ingenuity, to assume that all those
what implies that human rights have universal application. translations say precisely the same thing.
But in what sense are human rights truly universal? For just one example, a subtle difference between the offi-
When it comes to promoting universality, the West doesn’t cial English and Chinese versions of the Universal Declaration

10 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Human Rights
reveals a much greater schism. The majority of the thirty arti- erroneous beliefs, and that the ultimate ‘awakening’ of life lies
cles in the English version of the Declaration refer to ‘every- in recognising the emptiness of the self and the world. Even from
one’ and ‘no one’, while the Chinese translation conveys all such this cursory overview of the main traditions in Chinese philoso-
expressions with the phrase ‘ren-ren’, ‘人人’ – literally, ‘man and phy, we can see that none of these schools can provide the nec-
man’. This linguistic nuance is significant, since it means that essary ethical or metaphysical grounding for human rights as we
the two languages convey the meaning of ‘universality’ in meta- understand them in the West. We should not be surprised there-
physically distinct ways. fore if a quick and simple transplantation of this idea from Europe
The difference lies in ‘being universal for everyone’ in con- to China proves difficult, or even impossible.
trast to ‘being universal for all’. Although both formulations Which Declaration of Human Rights did China sign? Can
endorse a sense of universality, the English version (‘everyone’) one be sure that the Chinese people – not only government offi-
stresses its universal application to the singular person, while cials, but also ordinary citizens – understand ‘human rights’
the Chinese version (‘all’) is imbued with a sense of the com- exactly as we do in the West? The fundamental conflict does
munity as a whole (that is, of the whole human race). The phrase not lie in whether or not individual rights are or are not worth
‘ren-ren’, ‘man and man’, consisting of two human beings, incor- protecting in China, but the fact that Chinese culture may not
porates the idea of social relationship, thus the ideas of com- have the conceptual apparatus, or need, to distinguish the ‘com-
munity and cooperation. ‘Ren-ren’ also merges the senses of munity’ from the ‘individual’. Rightly or wrongly, this lacuna
‘one’ and ‘all’ together. The subtextual manifests itself in the priority of the former over the latter.
implication of the language of the Chi- The problem of untranslatability and the danger of unwar-
nese version suggests that there will be no ranted faith in univocal terminology in cross-cultural studies have
individual without a community. From long been exposed by comparative philosophers. Some of the
this linguistic insight, we can infer that the solutions put forward include finding metaphorical links between
inalienable ren-quan – 人权 , the Chinese different conceptual schemes (Karl Potter) or working on analo-
translation of ‘human rights’ – is predi- gies as a tool of investigation (G.E.R. Lloyd). Another promis-
cated on the assumption of a functioning ing line of inquiry is provided by hermeneutics, according to
community. Hence in the Chinese version which translation and interpretation cannot be separated.
of the Declaration, the community has to
be acknowledged in any ren-quan conver- Conclusion
sation. This invariably clashes with West- Fortunately, that the concept of human rights doesn’t easily trans-
ern assumptions regarding the individu- late into Chinese is not as serious an obstacle as it may at first
alistic foundations of the idea of human rights. seem. If the intention behind promoting human rights is to pro-
This linguistic understanding can help Western readers tect people from unnecessary suffering and to advocate their well-
better comprehend the violations of human rights in China, being, then there is no lack of equivalents in the Chinese intel-
from the imprisonment of protestors to the contempt for free- lectual tradition. For instance, the primary meaning of the fun-
dom of speech, in terms of an appeal to social stability. In the damental Confucian notion, the cardinal virtue as Confucius him-
last analysis, in China, what is considered good for the commu- self defines it, ‘ai ren’, ‘爱 人 ’, is ‘to love and care for people’
nity is paramount. This also explains why the Chinese economic (Analects, 12.22; the point is reaffirmed in the Mencius, 4b28).
success that has pulled millions out of poverty is presented in The linguistic, ultimately conceptual, asymmetry between
China as working towards protecting human rights, even if this English and Chinese regarding the Universal Declaration of
success has been achieved at the expense of individual human Human Rights urges us to be more cautious in dealing with uni-
rights violations in some local cases. versal values. It is not a question of rejecting universality or uni-
The Confucian virtue of filial piety also undermines the indi- versal ideas as timeless truths; but of acknowledging that any
vidualistic idea of ‘self-ownership’, since one’s body (roughly, such truth has to be told by someone within a context, and cru-
one’s physical existence) is given by the parents and nourished cially, from a particular perspective, and in a particular language.
by the family; therefore, self-preservation is not a matter of self- Perhaps the best way to understand and promote human rights
interest, but rather is an obligation to take care of the family in China is therefore to give up on the term ‘human rights’, to
‘property’. Moreover, Confucian ethics transforms the ‘person’ let go of certain Western theoretical frameworks, and instead
or ‘self’ talked about in the West, the abstract moral being or work towards equivalent goals with the terms and ideas that the
individualistic moral agent, into various concrete social roles or rich Chinese philosophical traditions have to offer. From there,
relationship within specific contexts. In fact, the idea of the ‘self’ through more empathetic and constructive conversation, an
is derogatory in China, due to its close association with the ‘pri- intellectual mechanism may grow which allows both conceptual
vate’ and ‘self-interest’. Daoism, despite being very different convergences and the preservation of cultural identities, while
from Confucianism, also demotes the idea of ‘self’, but in a more fostering political cooperation between China and the West.
metaphysical fashion: the idea of ‘myself’ is considered a limita- Political and comparative philosophers in China and in the West
tion or boundary which ought to be abandoned in order to have a key role to play in bringing about this paradigm shift.
reunite with heaven and earth, and in the process gain true free- © DR VITTORIO BUFACCHI & DR XIAO OUYANG, 2017
dom, or so-called xiaoyao you (‘carefree wandering’). Chinese Vittorio Bufacchi is Senior Lecturer and Xiao Ouyang is a post-doc-
Buddhism generally holds that the idea of a self (Sanskrit atman, toral fellow in the Department of Philosophy, University College
or wo in Chinese) and of external things (dharmas or fa) are both Cork, Ireland.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 11

Rights Rights
The Absolute In-Practice
Human Right Against Torture
Ian Fishback argues that torture should never be allowed in practice.

t one time international recognition of a right against of human dignity. However, just because something is particu-
torture was considered one of the best, if not the sin- larly bad does not mean that it cannot be justified in any cir-
gularly best, triumphs of the human rights regime. cumstance. The view that torture ought to be prohibited
However, since the US implemented its enhanced absolutely in principle is especially problematic for those who
interrogation program in the wake of the terrorist attacks of acknowledge that war can be justified in principle. Given that
9/11, the consensus of a human right against torture seems to war inherently involves widespread suffering, exploitation and
be in tatters. The new President of the United States and his violations of autonomy, it is hard to acknowledge an in-princi-
choice for National Security Advisor have both endorsed inter- ple right to war without acknowledging an in-principle right to
rogational torture, and a majority of Americans support using torture as well. As a matter of consistency, advocates on an in-
interrogational torture on suspected terrorists (Chris Kahn, principle prohibition of torture should probably be pacifists.
Reuters, 30 March 2016; see War can only be justified, if it ever can be, on the grounds
torture-idUSKCN0WW0Y3). What was once unquestionably that large-scale violent coercion of a morally-innocent enemy
taboo is now largely a matter of partisan politics. Apparently civilian population (which is what war usually involves) is neces-
robust signs of widespread support for the legal prohibition of sary to preserve the greater good. But it seems that in principle
torture, such as the UN Convention Against Ali Shallal al-Qaisi this basic ‘lesser evil’ justification could equally
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrad- being tortured apply to interrogational torture in counterter-
ing Treatment, now seem hopelessly vague. in Abu Ghraib rorism operations. This raises a fundamental
The demarcation between torture and ‘cruel, challenge for those who claim that war can be
inhuman or degrading treatment’ remains both justified in practice but torture cannot: Is tortur-
controversial and fundamentally important, ing one innocent person really worse than the
since if an act is categorized as ‘torture’ it is harms inflicted on many innocent people dur-
always illegal, but if it is categorized as ‘cruel, ing the course of a war? If wars can be fought in
inhuman, or degrading treatment’ it can some- order to protect innocent people, then why not
times be legal in some countries if it can be also allow torture in order to protect innocent
shown to be instrumentally necessary. people? But this analogy might not carry through
Perhaps as a result of the contours of the polit- for in-practice justifications for torture compared
ical and legal debate, ethicists thinking about with war.
this issue seem preoccupied with explaining The critical move of those who advocate the
whether or not torture is so bad that it ought to be categorically admissability of torture, is to think of in-principle hypothetical
prohibited regardless of its efficacy. The fault lines tend to be cases, and then to say these principles apply to actual cases. ‘Tick-
between deontologists and consequentialists. Deontologists – eth- ing time-bomb’ scenarios often fulfil this role. The harrowing
ical theorists who maintain that actions are right or wrong inde- scenario is of an imminent terrorist attack that threatens thou-
pendent of the consequences – tend to advocate an absolute in- sands, if not millions, of lives; say, of a dirty bomb hidden some-
principle human right against torture. Absolute in-principle claims where in a city. Authorities detain a culpable terrorist who has
such as this assert that certain acts are so wrong that they cannot information that could prevent the attack, but the detainee will
be justified under any circumstances, regardless of the conse- not willingly divulge the information. Torture is the only way
quences. And if an act is absolutely prohibited in principle, then to coerce them to provide the information in time. Therefore,
it follows that it must also be absolutely prohibited in practice. torture is the only means capable of stopping the attack, and
On the other hand, consequentialists – ethical theorists who hold saving many innocent lives. Surely, if torture is the only way of
that consequences determine the rightness or wrongness of actions coercing a culpable terrorist to give up information that can save
– tend to advocate a human right against torture that admits of millions of lives, then that justifies its use?
both in-principle and in-practice exceptions. A third camp admits However, one might agree with this reasoning and yet deny
the possibility of an in-principle justification for torture while that such ticking time-bomb cases ever actually exist, or at least
denying the possibility of an in-practice justification. Here I want argue that they have an extraordinarily low probability of occur-
to support this third camp, and argue that the human right against ring. Critics like me of the use of hypothetical ticking time-bombs
torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment is best under- to justify torture, say such thought experiments fail to apply to
stood as admitting of a necessity justification in-principle which real life because they add or leave out features common to actual
however cannot be satisfied in practice. cases. For example, in reality authorities often mistakenly detain
Many people assert that torture is absolutely in-principle innocent suspects; guilty and innocent detainees alike frequently
morally wrong because it is a particularly egregious violation lack the information authorities need to act effectively; and acquir-

12 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Human Rights
ing information through torture may take too much time to facil- ism campaigns. Urban insurgents learned from the FLN expe-
itate effective action. Thus, the existence of an in-principle justi- rience, and have adopted countermeasures to foil the speed of
fication does not entail the existence of an in-practice justifica- interrogational torture. Now Al Qaeda operatives are selected
tion. This means that torture could be absolutely prohibited in and trained to resist interrogational torture, and we have every
practice even though it can be justified in principle. Therefore, indication that this training is effective. For example, Khalid
we argue that there are no in-practice justifications for torture in Sheikh Mohammed, a high-ranking Al Qaeda leader captured
the real world. by US Forces, was waterboarded more than seventy times before
The problem with the ticking time-bomb debate for advo- he provided information. It’s possible that he ‘cracked’; but it
cates of the sometimes-admissability of torture is that it focuses is at least as likely that he endured waterboarding until he
on the wrong type of case. The strongest argument for interro- thought the information he relinquished was no longer valu-
gational torture is not that it is an effective means to thwart spe- able enough to justify his withholding it. This would be pre-
cific enemy terrorist attacks, but that it is an effective means to cisely what Al Qaeda trained him to do.
attack enemy cells. French counterinsurgency operations in There is scant evidence that interrogational torture has been
Algeria against the FLN in the 1960s are commonly thought to instrumental in the defeat of Al Qaeda or other terrorist orga-
be the best example demonstrating this. nizations. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that inter-
This case was actually part of my military training as a US rogational torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treat-
Special Forces officer. In 2004, I was part of a small group of ment, such as occurred at Abu Ghraib and Bagram, yielded sig-
fifteen junior officers under the tutelage of a more senior men- nificant strategic costs in the US-led counter-terrorism efforts
tor. The mentor had us watch The Battle of Algiers, a movie that against Al Qaeda.
depicts the French occupation of Algiers. It shows French para- Proponents of interrogational torture claim that the Abu
troopers using interrogational torture to destroy the FLN ter- Ghraib events were the result of ‘a few bad apples’ rather than
rorist network. Our mentor then articulated the supposed effi- a necessary side-effect of the enhanced interrogation program.
cacy of torture as a method for defeating urban insurgent orga- This argument is specious. The prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib
nizations that rely on cellular organization for protection. and elsewhere was not the product of a few rogue soldiers.
Urban insurgents, which include many terrorist organizations, Rather, it was the predictable result of removing safeguards
divide their organization into a hierarchy of cells. The lowest level against detainee abuse in a combat environment. The sad fact
of cells carry out the tactical tasks that have the greatest risk of is that combat produces psychological stress likely to motivate
capture, such as placing bombs. Members of each cell only know torture and the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of
their immediate leader in the cell so that they cannot provide infor- prisoners. It has been shown that soldiers do not need com-
mation about the higher levels of the organization, and even that manders to issue orders to torture in order to commit acts of
limited information has a narrow time-horizon of usefulness. The torture. Rather, soldiers need commanders to issue orders that
leader of the cell will go into hiding as soon as he or she learns of prevent them from committing acts of torture. Normal human
a subordinate’s capture. Therefore, a counterinsurgent force has a beings placed in combat circumstances may be liable to torture
very short time in which to use a detainee’s information to target unless institutions shape their behavior.
the detainee’s associates. One way to destroy the highest levels of One of the most effective safeguards for reducing instances
the organization is to consecutively exploit several detainees in of prisoner abuse is to clearly communicate an absolute prohi-
this manner, swiftly working up the insurgent chain-of-command. bition of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
‘Soft’, rapport-building interrogation techniques take far too much To admit of exceptions to the prohibition is to invite rational-
time to facilitate such a campaign, but as the French supposedly ization and abuse of those exceptions. Thus, the hypothetical
demonstrated in Algeria – the lesson our mentor tried to impress ticking time-bomb is dangerous because it encourages soldiers
upon us – interrogational torture is fast enough to facilitate it. to misrepresent real world scenarios to themselves as more sim-
My concerns with our mentor’s argument are rather straight- ilar to the ticking time-bomb case than they actually are. There-
forward: the French lost the war in Algeria, and it is even harder fore the hypothetical ticking time-bomb is a moral hazard best
to use interrogational torture in contemporary counterterror- excluded from deliberation concerning the issue of torture and
ism operations than it was in the Sixties. cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, especially by front-
The instrumental value of interrogational torture in rooting line combat troops. As an institutional practice, torture, and
out the FLN is questionable; but even if it was instrumentally cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, ought to be absolutely
valuable, it did not translate into strategic success. And since prohibited in the soldiery. This argument is undoubtedly too
hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Algerians were tortured contingent and narrow to satisfy many advocates of an absolute
as part of the campaign against the FLN, arguably, this activity in-practice prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrad-
undermined the French war there. Algerian support for French ing treatment, but it is the best afforded by reason and the body
rule crumbled, and the FLN won the political battle, which is of evidence available to us at this time.
the end that terrorism and war are ultimately aiming to achieve. © IAN FISHBACK 2017
So one question that French interrogational torture in Algeria Ian Fishback is a former U.S. Army officer with four combat tours.
raises is: Do the tactical benefits of interrogational torture out- He took a stand against torture, eventually writing a public letter in
weigh the strategic costs? 2005 to Senator John McCain explaining his concerns about abuse
They clearly did not do so in Algeria, and there is even less of detainees. From 2012-15 he was an Instructor at West Point. He
reason to believe that they do in contemporary counterterror- is now a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 13

Human Rights
What Are Human Rights?
Tim Dare considers how far human rights claims can stretch.

uman rights are, of course, rights of a certain kind, in many countries, were only enforceable if written.
and rights are specific kinds of moral, political or If all rights were conventional, then what rights people have
legal claims. Consider the following cases. Sup- would depend upon what conventions particular communities
pose I lose my wallet and won’t be able to get home or groups had adopted. What appeared on a list of rights and
unless I come up with $5.00 for the train. I might ask a col- who had them would depend upon particular and changeable
league for a loan, pointing out that, were he to agree, he would conventions.
display the virtues of generosity and kindness, and would also Champions of human rights aim to avoid this contingency.
promote utility, since his $5.00 would create more happiness There are, many of them claim, rights which are not contingent
in my hand than sitting unused in his wallet for the night. How- upon conventions, but instead are rights that people have simply
ever, I cannot insist he help me, even if I am right about what by virtue of being human, and so which cannot be removed by
virtue and utility recommend. He has no duty to make the loan. contingent practices or institutions.
Suppose alternatively that discovering the absence of my It is easy to see why this idea is attractive. If such rights exist,
wallet reminds me that last week I lent $5.00 to another col- they provide a basis for claims on peoples’ behaviour that hold
league on the condition that she would pay me back today. I go no matter what particular conventions particular communities
to her office and ask her for the $5.00. Given our agreement, I adopt. These rights will be universal, in the sense that they will
have a right to the money, and she has a duty to give it to me. apply to all people, no matter where they are or to what con-
On this account, rights-based claims – by contrast with claims ventions they happen to be subject.
based on utility or virtue – are always accompanied by correla- Such rights would also provide a perspective from which one
tive duties. If someone has a right, then some other person or could criticize and assess particular conventions. For instance, if
group of persons has a duty to give or allow the rights-holder there are human rights to education, to the absence of discrim-
to have or do that to which the rights-holder has a right. ination, to access to adequate health care, or whatever, then any
I was able to demand my $5.00 ‘as of right’ because my col- social conventions that deny those things to some members of
league and I had entered into an agreement. My right depended the communities they govern will fail to respect the human rights
upon a convention or practice and we can easily imagine the of those people, and those people will be able to identify duty-
convention being different. It could have been the case that holders and demand that to which they have a human-rights-
promises to repay loans, like contracts for the purchase of land based claim.


14 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Human Rights


Within a system which
denies the existence of
basic human rights, fear
tends to be the order of
the day.

Aung San Sui Kyi

Problems With This Account of Human Rights

” ‘subject to resources’. It is also sometimes difficult to identify
There may seem to be an immediate problem with this account duty-holders for the rights in the UN Declaration. According
of rights and human rights, since it suggests that many of the to Article 23 “Everyone has the right to work” but an unem-
most familiar and influential examples of human rights are in ployed person cannot insist that any given employer take them
fact not rights or human rights at all. on. Perhaps their government is obliged to provide employ-
Consider the rights set out in the 1948 United Nations Uni- ment, but governments might quite properly eschew the role
versal Declaration of Human Rights. On the account above, of employer, and moreover, it seems implausible that states that
human rights do not depend upon conventions, but the Decla- provide support for the unemployed rather than jobs are breach-
ration does seem to ground its rights on a convention – specifi- ing the human rights of the unemployed.
cally, upon the facts that member states have “reaffirmed” the These concerns connect with a broader feasibility issue.
value of human rights, and upon their “determination” and According to our original simple account of rights claims, rights-
“pledge” to promote their universal recognition. Further, fulfil- holders can insist on that to which they have a right. It is
ment of many of the rights in the Declaration and associated acknowledged on all sides, however, that it may not be possible
instruments depend upon participation in complex social and to realize many of the UN’s alleged economic and social rights
economic practices. Other rights in the UN documents assume for all – that at least some of those rights are infeasible. This
very specific social and institutional arrangements: rights to work, issue connects with the principle of ‘ought implies can’, which
to paid holidays, and to social security, for instance, are rights says that we cannot be under a duty to do that which we cannot
that make sense only against the backdrop of particular and con- do. If that’s correct, and a certain duty is infeasible, then there
tingent social arrangements. These rights seem not to be human is no such duty, and consequently – at least according to the
rights in the sense sketched above either, since they are not held above account of rights – there is no correlative right.
by people simply by virtue of their being human. Instead, they Furthermore, as a practical matter, allowing infeasible rights
are held (if they are) because people stand in particular relations might devalue rights claims. Rights are especially powerful
to social practices and to one another. claims on behaviour precisely because they allow their holders
It is also unclear what sort of demands the UN rights allow. to insist upon that to which they have a right. If we allow that
In our opening scenario, my right allowed me to insist upon my there are infeasible rights claims, we threaten to surrender a
$5.00, but everyone accepts that realization of the rights in the core feature of rights claims, and in particular human rights
UN Declaration will take time and be hampered by a lack of claims, that made them attractive at the outset.
resources. Signatory states are often obliged only to take appro-
priate measures towards the ‘progressive realization’ of many Responses
of those rights, subject to ‘available resources’. This obligation Much of the considerable recent philosophical literature on
can be cast as a duty correlative to a right; but notice just how human rights is connected to these ideas. Some commentators
indeterminate that duty will often be, because of how difficult have tended toward the view of human rights as absolute, and
it can be to specify just what a rights-holder can demand from so have been more or less critical of the human rights move-
a duty-holder obliged to the ‘progressive realization’ of a right ment associated with the Declaration (see for instance Maurice

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 15

Human Rights
Cranston, ‘Human Rights, Real and Supposed’ in The Philoso- imperfect duties in order to avoid problems based on the absence
phy of Human Rights ed. by Patrick Hayden, 2001). At the other of clearly specified duties. Perfect duties are precise and
end of the spectrum, Charles Bietz argues in ‘What Human absolute. So, for instance, I have a perfect obligation not to tor-
Rights Mean’ (Daedalus, 132.1, 2003) that in order to “appreci- ture anyone [see elsewhere in this issue, Ed.]. But the perfect
ate the real nature of human rights and the reasons why we duty not to torture is accompanied by a less precisely specified
should care about them” we should “look first at human rights requirement to consider the ways that torture might be pre-
as they actually operate in the world today” – so giving priority vented and to decide what one can reasonably do to implement
to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and associated them. Sen insists that these imperfect duties are not vacuous.
documents. And they leave room for just the sort of limited or progressive
Some commentators who have thought it an error to hold realization contemplated by the Universal Declaration of
on to an abstract conception of rights have sought ways to Human Rights.
explain how a claim could be a human right and not run afoul Other writers have defended various types of ‘minimalism’
of the above criticisms. For instance, in ‘Elements of a Theory about human rights, abandoning problematic rights such as that
of Human Rights’ (Philosophy & Public Affairs 32.4, 2004), to work and paid holidays. Michael Ignatieff, for instance, argues
Amartya Sen relies on Kant’s distinction between perfect and that the “priority of all human rights activism [is] to stop tor-
ture, beatings, killings, rape and assault, to improve, as best we
can, the security of ordinary people” (Human Rights as Politics
and Idolatry, 2003, p.173). Rights minimalism is a response to
the above criticisms because a shorter, well-defined list of rights
is straightforwardly less demanding. Not only are there fewer
rights, but the realization of negative rights against torture,
beatings, killings, etc, is likely to be cheaper than more expan-
sive economic and cultural rights, and so (in theory) easier to
fulfil. They are also thought more likely to gain broad support.

The Grounds of Human Rights

It is easy enough to see how conventional rights arise. Conven-
tions are practices that have a certain kind of social traction.
Promises work because promisees and promisors take it to be
true that they have gained rights or assumed duties, respec-
tively, and observers disapprove of people who promise then
fail to act consistently with the convention.
Those things which are true of humans simply because they
are human – their reason, their capacity to plan, or to suffer, or
perhaps to realize their potential – could generate rights and
duties in a similar way, if all or most of us took it to be true that
any entity of whom those things were true had a right to, for
example, work or equal respect, and disapproved of those who
didn’t act consistently with that truth. But that right would then
be conventional: it would depend upon its recognition in a prac-
tice, and not upon the fact of someone’s humanity. Conversely,
it is not easy to see how the things that are true of humans simply
because they are human could generate obligations independently
of conventions: how a natural fact about me could generate
rights and duties if it were not in general taken to do so and
accommodated in a sufficiently widespread practice.
You can chain me, Some human rights advocates have suggested that human

“ you can torture me,

you can even destroy this body,
but you will never
rights can be directly grounded in ethics. Sen, for instance, sees
“proclamations of human rights… as articulations of ethical
demands” (‘Elements’, p.320). On this account, to say that there
is a human right not to be tortured is simply to say that there is
a good ethical argument, sustainable by open public reasoning,
for the claim that the interest against being tortured should be

protected by appropriate (perfect and imperfect) duties. This
imprison my mind. approach, Sen maintains, frees human rights from reliance on
legislation, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
Mahatma Gandhi
and also from reliance on whatever ethical values happen to be
popular at the time, since the arguments that survive open public

16 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Human Rights
reasoning may shift current views. It needs to be remembered,
however, that human rights will often be required precisely in
circumstances in which their background ethical justifications
are not accepted. So although it may be fine to work out which
human rights exist by considering ethical positions, at the ethi-
cal coalface those rights must have force independently of those
Other commentators, such as Beitz, have emphasized the dis-
by Melissa Felder
tinctive political function of human rights. Advocates of the politi-
cal view have tended toward fidelity to existing human rights prac-
tices, and to rights minimalism, given the need to find common
ground among the variety of political responses to human rights
ideas. But because the political view construes human rights as
dependent upon political institutions and practices, it is unlikely
to satisfy those attracted to human rights precisely because of their
independence from particular political practices.

Rights & Flags

We began with an account of rights that portrayed them as
having duties attached. If someone has a right, we said, then
some other person or group of people has a duty to give or allow
the rights-holder to have or do something. Rights understood
this way are powerful and important. Unfortunately, the term
‘right’ is used much more widely than this account allows. In
particular, it’s common to describe any interest someone wishes
to mark as especially important as a ‘right’, regardless of whether
or not there are identifiable duties and duty-holders. That is,
‘rights’ are often used to refer not to a narrow class of moral
and political claims that are accompanied by duties, but as flags
to signal that some interest – to life, to health, to employment
– is regarded as morally or politically significant. This broader
use of the term ‘right’ is unfortunate because rights understood
as moral or political claims correlative to duties and upon which
right-holders can insist, are important, and the proliferation of
‘rights’ that inevitably flows from the rights-as-flags strategy
undermines their morally-obliging force. We simply cannot
insist on all the things considered important by all the people
who make rights-as-flags claims, and so we must dismiss at least
some, perhaps many, rights claims. And if we know that many
rights claims must be dismissed, we are unlikely to think that
rights claims are all that important.
The tendency to use rights as flags leads to rights prolifera-
tion, which leads to rights inflation. Rights become worth less,
if not worthless. The human rights culture is a significant con-
tributor to this rights inflation. Ideally, we should preserve the
term ‘rights’ to describe feasible and enforceable claims accom-
panied by duties. Of course, the horse has already bolted. The
expanded human rights culture and practice is so well established
that there is little prospect of limiting the expansion of rights
claims, but we should at least try to curb rights inflation. Among
the alternative groundings for human rights, the political
approach probably gives the best opportunity for doing so. If we
are to allow ‘human rights’ at all, we should favour a minimal
list of rights that rests ultimately on convention.
© DR TIM DARE 2017
Tim Dare qualified as a lawyer but is now an Associate Professor of
Philosophy at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He has a SIMON + FINN CARTOON © MELISSA FELDER 2017 PLEASE VISIT SIMONANDFINN.COM
special interest in legal ethics.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 17

Human Rights
The United Nations Universal
Declaration of Human Rights
Preamble Article 5.
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading
inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation treatment or punishment.
of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in Article 6.
barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before
advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech the law.
and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the
highest aspiration of the common people, Article 7.
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimina-
as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human tion to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection
rights should be protected by the rule of law, against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly rela- incitement to such discrimination.
tions between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaf- Article 8.
firmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national
of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the con-
determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in stitution or by law.
larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co- Article 9.
operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of Article 10.
the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge, Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and
DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every
organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive Article 11.
by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and free- (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed
doms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he
their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territo- (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any
ries under their jurisdiction. act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national
or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heav-
Article 1. ier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They penal offence was committed.
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one
another in a spirit of brotherhood. Article 12.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy,
Article 2. family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and rep-
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Dec- utation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such
laration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, lan- interference or attacks.
guage, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, prop-
erty, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on Article 13.
the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the coun- (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence
try or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, within the borders of each state.
trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and
to return to his country.
Article 3.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. Article 14.
(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asy-
Article 4. lum from persecution.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely
shall be prohibited in all their forms. arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes
and principles of the United Nations.

18 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Human Rights
Article 15. ation ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human
(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protec-
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the tion.
right to change his nationality. (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the pro-
tection of his interests.
Article 16.
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, Article 24.
nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limita-
are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dis- tion of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent Article 25.
of the intending spouses. (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, hous-
is entitled to protection by society and the State. ing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to secu-
rity in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old
Article 17. age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in associ- (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assis-
ation with others. tance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property. social protection.

Article 18. Article 26.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and reli- (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least
gion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and free- in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall
dom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made gen-
manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and obser- erally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on
vance. the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human
Article 19. personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fun-
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right damental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friend-
includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, ship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the
receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regard- activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
less of frontiers. (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall
be given to their children.
Article 20.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and asso- Article 27.
ciation. (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association. community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and
its benefits.
Article 21. (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his coun- interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of
try, directly or through freely chosen representatives. which he is the author.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his coun-
try. Article 28.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of govern- Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the
ment; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote
or by equivalent free voting procedures. Article 29.
(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and
Article 22. full development of his personality is possible.
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be sub-
is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-oper- ject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the pur-
ation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, pose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms
of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order
and the free development of his personality. and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary
Article 23. to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to
just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unem- Article 30.
ployment. Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform
equal work. any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuner- forth herein.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 19

Human Rights
I Hate You,
My Lovely France!
Hamid Andishan tells us how Sartre, a philosopher of freedom, had problems with
the politics of the land of liberté, and how this affected his view of human rights.

ave you ever heard of someone loving and hating action. Analysis proved that it was a time bomb precisely set so that
something at the same time? It can lead to madness, the explosion could not occur before the personnel had left. To no
or at least, to profound anguish. The situation avail: Yveton was arrested, sentenced to death, a reprieve was refused,
becomes worse if that thing is one’s motherland. he was executed. Not the slightest hesitation: this man declared and
Jean-Paul Sartre was in such a situation. He was a French proved that he did not wish to kill anyone, but we wanted to kill him,
philosopher against France. Philosophical offspring of René and we did so without wavering.”
Descartes and admirer of Honoré de Balzac, he fought for France
in WWII, and was a prisoner of war in Germany; but after the According to Sartre, France was no longer a champion of
war he turned into a bitter critic of French policy. Why? freedom; on the contrary, it was against freedom. France was
Sartre had witnessed how France – the land of liberty, equal- playing a double game, trying to take a leading role in the human
ity and fraternity – had acted as a colonial predator in Algeria, rights discourse and at the same time repressing native people
Cameroon, and Indochina. In the first editorial of his journal in its colonized territories. In his preface to Frantz Fanon’s 1961
Les Temps Modernes in 1945, Sartre and the phenomenologist book The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre says that France should
Maurice Merleau-Ponty declared that members of the French rid itself of France. That is, the ideal free France should sepa-
Resistance who had fought to liberate France during WWII, rate itself from the colonial France.
and who were now in Indochina, were like the German soldiers René Cassin, a French law professor, was the French repre-
fighting for fascism. Paris was to him the symbol of freedom sentative on the committee drafting the Universal Declaration
against the machinery of fascism (see The Liberation of Paris, of Human Rights, and worked to revise its first draft in the years
1945), but barely a week after Hitler’s death, the same city of after the war. A wave of nausea would have engulfed Sartre if he
romance and freedom sent troops to commit a bloody massacre had seen that draft, for it declared that human rights presup-
in the Algerian market town of Sétif, slaughtering thousands of pose a high degree of civilization, and so do not apply to people
Algerians. In the years that followed, civilized France contin- in ‘primitive’ stages of development. Such statements indicate
ued to brutally repress the growing anti-colonialist movement, that human rights are not for all humans, only for those who
frequently sentencing people to death in military courts. This are more human. (Remember the declaration of the pigs in
led Sartre to declare, “we are all murderers” in an article of that Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals
title published in Les Temps Modernes, No.145, 1958: are more equal than others.”)
In any case, Sartre oscillated for three decades towards and
“In November 1956 Fernand Yveton, a member of the Combattants away from the idea of human rights, because he was doubtful
de la Libération [a guerrilla group established by the Algerian about the honesty of human rights theory towards those
Communist Party] planted a bomb at the Hamma power station, an wretched so-called ‘uncivilized’ peoples. If the Declaration was
attempted sabotage which can in no way equate with a terrorist passed by colonial empires such as France and Britain, would it
really be peaceful, decent and well-intentioned? Behind this
lovely humanitarian smile, was there a set of sharp teeth?
Sometimes Sartre defended the Declaration, because he saw
that despite its limitations, it promoted basic rights that every
person must enjoy. In his statement ‘On Genocide’ at the Second
Session of the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes
Tribunal in 1967, he showed his profound concern for univer-
sal human rights, condemning the United States for violating
them in Vietnam.
Yet as a Marxist, Sartre also worried about what he saw as
bourgeois elements implicit in the Declaration, particularly
extreme individualism. He criticizes ‘the bourgeoisie’ for using
an analytic method to explain everything; every composite real-
Sétif, site of a
massacre by the French ity must be reduced to simple elements. Like water that is
in May 1945 reduced to oxygen and hydrogen, bourgeois analysis wants to
reduce human society to isolated individuals. In Introducing Les

20 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Human Rights


Temps Modernes (republished by Harvard University Press as destructive way that Western countries intervene politically,
What is Literature and Other Essays), Sartre said he believed that economically and militarily in Third World countries in the
this principle presided over the Universal Declaration of Human name of defending human rights. As Žižek writes: “For exam-
Rights as well. But when a people have lost their land, their ple, it is clear that the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein,
trade, their young generation, and have nothing except their legitimized in terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people,
own being, they do not need individuality and private posses- was not only motivated by hard-headed politico-economic inter-
sions. On the contrary, they need collectivity rather than indi- ests, but also relied on a determinate idea of the political and
vidualism. They need to return to their traditional collectivity economic conditions under which ‘freedom’ was to be deliv-
and their collective right of self-determination. ered to the Iraqi people: liberal-democratic capitalism, inser-
If he was only a leftist thinker, his position against absolute tion into the global market economy, etc.”
individualism would be clear; but he was an existentialist too. So it is not easy to say that Sartre was utterly for the theory
Individuality is one of the main cornerstones of existentialism. of human rights, nor completely against it. I should mention
In his 1945 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, he declared two crucial points. Firstly, human rights theory has many
that the existentialist “point of departure is, indeed, the subjec- humanitarian potentials; one can claim that it at least contains
tivity of the individual – not because we are bourgeois, but the seeds for equal rights among all human beings. Secondly, if
because we seek to base our doctrine on truth.” In Being and we don’t pay enough attention to the colonial-capitalist estab-
Nothingness (1943), he argued that every individual is existen- lishment’s tendency to protect their political and economic
tially responsible to undertake and to create his or her way of interests, ignoring human rights when they are incompatible
life. This is the type of existence which Kierkegaard calls singu- with those interests, then human rights theory can be easily
larity or individuality. We must notice that for Sartre, singular- misused by those powers.
ity or individuality is different from individualism. Extreme Combining these positive and negative points, one can say,
individualism is the negation of any collective identity; however, although Sartre and Third World activists may appeal to Human
individuality can incorporate being with others. Rights in their claims regarding human equality and dignity,
Although Sartre belongs to the left side of the debate on the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows
human rights, his critiques don’t align exactly with contempo- that at first the rights were written in defence of European citi-
rary leftist thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek in ‘Against Human zens against the terror of Nazism, not in defence of non-Euro-
Rights’ (2005). Žižek associates the theory of human rights with peans against European colonization.
liberal capitalism, just as Sartre did; however, he pays attention © HAMID ANDISHAN 2017
to a new phenomenon – the phenomenon of humanitarian inter- Hamid Andishan is currently taking his PhD in Philosophy at the
ference. Critics such as Žižek have recently been witness to the University of Ottawa.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 21

Human Rights
Richard Rorty On Rights
Patrícia Fernandes looks at Rorty’s idea for promoting human rights.

or his 1993 Oxford Amnesty Lecture, the American ‘metaphysical comfort’. However, Rorty wants to persuade us
philosopher Richard Rorty presented a paper that that we can gain something better. What?
would become one of his most popular texts: If we give up the notion of knowledge as representation,
‘Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimen- we can think of a more useful paradigm of knowl-
tality’. In it he argued for the following ideas: 1) We edge. In the first volume of his Philosophical Papers
cannot justify human rights; 2) Reason is a useless (1991), Rorty proposes that we should substi-
apparatus to promote human rights; 3) We tute the representationalist paradigm for an
should concentrate our energies instead on sen- anti-representationalist one. He argues that this
timental education. new paradigm would renew our sense of com-
munity and would be more useful for achiev-
The Contingency of Reason ing our social aims. In this sense, Rorty sees
To understand what Rorty meant by this, we need philosophy as serving political purposes: if our
to go back to his first original book, Philosophy and Richard Rorty political values, inherited from the Enlighten-
the Mirror of Nature (1979). In it Rorty offered an (1931-2007) ment, are to create a more democratic society and
analysis of the philosophical context of the second half to promote human solidarity, then a non-representa-
of the Twentieth Century. According to him, ever since tionalist or pragmatic paradigm will be more useful in achiev-
Descartes, Locke, and Kant in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth ing them than a representationalist one.
Centuries, philosophy has been centered on questions about
knowledge (as the relation between humanity and reality), and Rorty’s Pragmatic Approach to Rights
in the study of the mind (as the entity able to establish that rela- These are the most important of Rorty’s ideas. But how can we
tion). From this perspective, knowledge is a matter of estab- apply them to the matter of human rights? Rorty does so in
lishing a representational relation between ideas and reality. As ‘Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality’ (published in
Rorty writes, “to know is to represent accurately what is out- the third volume of his Philosophical Papers, 1998). His central
side the mind” (p.3). Rorty says that this is the core of the rep- goal is to show that a pragmatic paradigm would be more effi-
resentationalist paradigm, and that analytic philosophy is the heir cient for promoting a ‘human rights culture’ (Eduardo Rabossi’s
of this paradigm. However, Rorty uses Twentieth Century term) than projects that try to give rights a foundation in objec-
developments in the analytic tradition (by the later Ludwig tive truth. Let’s see how he does it.
Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars, W.V.O. Quine, and Donald Firstly, for Rorty, ‘foundationalist’ philosophers like Plato,
Davidson, among others) to argue that the representationalist Aquinas, and Kant tried to find premises about human beings
paradigm is merely contingent, and so philosophically optional. capable of being known to be true independently of our moral
Language plays an important role here. For Rorty, language intuitions and capable of justifying those moral intuitions. But
is not merely a medium between the self and reality. Language as we saw, from Rorty’s perspective we cannot find such foun-
has, rather, a constitutive role in thought: it determines the way dations; rather, our moral community determines what is
we think. The availability of particular words or a specific gram- morally good, and we can’t go beyond our language and our his-
mar, for instance, sets how we think about reality. And language torical conditions to find moral Truth-In-Itself. In that sense,
use is ubiquitous. We cannot access reality without it. That
means we can’t know if the language we use accurately repre- “the most philosophy can hope to do is to summarize our culturally
sents the world. To use Hilary Putnam’s expression, we cannot influenced intuitions about the right thing to do in various situa-
step outside language to see the world from ‘a God’s-eye point tions. The summary is effected by formulating a generalization from
of view’. In this sense, our language is contingent: we use a cer- which these intuitions can be deduced… That generalization is not
tain language for accidental reasons, and not necessarily because supposed to ground our intuitions, but rather to summarize them.”
that’s the way the world works. After all, as Rorty said ten years (Philosophical Papers III, p.171).
later in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, “the world does not
speak. Only we do” (p.6). Secondly we must keep in mind that Rorty is a pragmatist –
This philosophical position means that we have to give up his main concern is not with proving moral statements to be
the project of philosophy as the search for Truth. We are stuck true, but about finding what works, and in this case about how
in our historical conditions and our contingent language, and best to fulfill the utopian vision sketched by the Enlightenment:
we cannot expect to step outside them to reach absolute Truths
or Reality-In-Itself. Ultimately, we cannot offer any absolute “If the activities of those who attempt to achieve this [foundational-
foundation to our beliefs, nor can we can find absolute justifi- ist] sort of knowledge seem of little use in actualizing this utopia,
cations which would be able to persuade every reasonable person that is a reason to think there is no such knowledge. If it seems that
that we are right. It means giving up what Nietzsche called most of the work of changing moral intuitions is being done by

22 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Human Rights
manipulating our feelings rather than by increasing our knowledge, of those different from themselves as only quasi-human. The goal
that is a reason to think there is no knowledge of the sort that of this sort of manipulation of sentiment is to expand the reference
philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and Kant hoped to get.” (p.172) of the terms ‘our kind of people’ and ‘people like us’.” (p.176)

Appeals to reason and knowledge have little effect in Rorty’s This would correspond to what the ethicist Annette Baier
thought. We have to concentrate on what works, he says, and his called “a progress of sentiments” – which progress is towards
conclusion is that “the emergence of the human rights culture increasingly seeing the similarities between ourselves and others
seems to owe nothing to increased moral knowledge, and every- instead of the differences.
thing to hearing sad and sentimental stories” (p.172). Since there Finally, as an anti-foundationalist, Rorty doesn’t think of ‘bad
is probably no knowledge of the sort Plato imagined, it’s useless to people’ as being deprived of moral knowledge. Instead, he thinks
point at rationality as the thing we all have in common. Rorty uses that a well-functioning human rights culture results from two
the examples of the Serbian torturers who didn’t recognize their conditions, security and sympathy:
Muslim victims’ humanity, or the Nazis in relation to the Jews:
“By ‘security’ I mean conditions of life sufficiently risk-free as to make
“[I]t does little good to point out to the people I have just described one’s difference from others inessential to one’s self-respect, one’s
that many Muslims and women are good at mathematics or engi- sense of worth… By ‘sympathy’ I mean the sort of reactions Athenians
neering or jurisprudence. Resentful young Nazi toughs were quite had more of after seeing Aeschylus’s The Persians than before, the sort
aware that many Jews were clever and learned, but this only added to that whites in the United States had more of after reading Uncle Tom’s
the pleasure they took in beating such Jews. Nor does it do much Cabin than before, the sort we have more of after watching television
good to get such people to read Kant and agree that one should not programs about the genocide in Bosnia.” (p.180)
treat rational agents simply as means. For everything turns on who
counts as a fellow human being, as a rational agent in the only rele- Rorty for our Current Crises
vant sense – the sense in which rational agency is synonymous with Rorty’s account is particularly relevant in our day. The recent
membership in our moral community.” (p.177) surge of xenophobic movements in Europe, the hostility to immi-
gration in many countries, and all the polemic surrounding the
Thirdly of course we should remain profoundly grateful to giving of support to desperate refugees – none of this is indepen-
Plato and Kant, “not because they discovered truths but because dent of the current global economic crisis. People didn’t suddenly
they prophesied cosmopolitan utopias” (p.173); but if we put become more ignorant concerning human rights, they simply
foundationalism behind us, we could “concentrate our energies feel more insecure, and that’s an obstacle to more sympathy. As
on manipulating sentiments, on sentimental education” and that Rorty says, “The tougher things are, the more you have to be
would be the best way to promote those cosmopolitan utopias: afraid of, the more dangerous your situation, the less you can
afford the time or effort to think about what things might be like
“That sort of education gets people of different kinds sufficiently for people with whom you do not immediately identify.” (p.180).
well acquainted with one another that they are less tempted to think This is why Rorty’s account is so interesting. On the one
hand, his idea of contingency
liberates us from the endless
quest for Truth, Certainty, and
Nature. On the other hand, it
liberates us from the burden of

rationally justifying our moral

sentiments that we have been
carrying over the last two hun-
dred years. Finally, a Rortian
perspective is a great one for
thinking about the challenges
we are presently facing. “Sen-
timental education works only
on people who can relax long
enough to listen” Rorty writes
(p.180) – so let’s relax and listen
to the tribulations of other
people. This is how we can
build and improve human
rights culture.
Patrícia Fernandes is a PhD
student at the University of
Minho in Portugal.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 23

Philosophy Then


The Right to Be Poor
Peter Adamson looks into the surprising derivation of
the right to property ownership.

ne of my favorite things about the this was in fact impossible. Why impossi- thing on a voluntary basis. When some-
history of philosophy is finding out ble? Well, even the most pious mendicant thing is transferred into your possession,
that ideas we now take for granted has to eat, since starving yourself would be you can decline to take ownership, so that
originally emerged in surprising ways. I can suicide, which is a sin, and it makes no sense the original possessor can demand it back
think of no better example than the notion to claim that you don’t own the food you at any time. This applies even to goods that
of a right to own property. Not that we can eat. Even if it is charitably donated to you, are destroyed in the process of using them,
take it for granted that we have such a right, once it passes into your possession, it must, such as food. The generous noblewoman
if we consider the history of communism in well, be your possession. It is your owner- who allows a friar to eat the bread she has
the Twentieth Century. Still, it seems such ship that gives you permission to destroy donated continues to own the bread even
an obvious concept that it must surely the food by eating it. as it is being consumed. Or, if she volun-
always have been with us. But you can make The mendicants gave this problem deep tarily gives up her rights over the bread,
a good case that it was first explicitly artic- thought, and not only as it applied to food. then the bread belongs to no-one. The
ulated in the later Middle Ages. And here’s Ironically, their orders had become very mendicants’ opponents found this absurd,
the surprising part: the thinkers who first wealthy thanks to the generosity of pious but Marsilius could point to a precedent in
explored this notion were actually con- Roman law. Antique jurists had developed
cerned with their right to own nothing. the idea of a res nullius – something owned
They were members of the mendicant by no-one. Marsilius gave the example of a
orders, especially the Franciscans. Follow- fish in the sea, which belongs to no-one. If
ing the example of their founder, Francis of a mendicant catches it but voluntarily
Assisi, Franciscans argued that spiritual per- Francis declines to own it, so that he acquires no
fection requires the voluntary embrace of of Assisi legal right over it, it keeps on belonging to
poverty. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named by Giotto no-one even as the friar grills and eats it.
Desire, they depended on the kindness of With arguments like these, Marsilius
strangers, living on charitable donations. and other theorists of voluntary poverty,
Hence the term ‘mendicant’, meaning, such as Peter Olivi and William of
‘given to begging’. Christ and his Apostles, laypeople, with libraries full of books, and Ockham, articulated a right of ownership
the Franciscans argued, had shown the way buildings in which to live and work. But precisely in order to deny that the men-
by giving up all their possessions. Further- they argued that these things did not belong dicants were exercising such a right. After
more, ownership of property is a conse- to the individual friars, they belonged to all, in the normal case, people do consent
quence of the Fall. In a state of innocence the church, and the mendicants were just to own what is given to them, or what
there would be no need for possessions, using them. Therefore, to respond to crit- they purchase, and when they do so they
since by generosity of spirit all things would ics such as Pope John, Franciscans and their acquire a special right over these things.
be shared. However, as well as an individ- allies had to work out a sophisticated Not only a right of use, since that could
ual religious commitment, the embrace of account of the difference between mere use be present even without ownership –
poverty amounted to an implicit and some- and actual ownership. everyone uses the air they breathe, but
times explicit political critique, since the The distinction is actually rather plausi- no one owns the air. Rather, this is a new
medieval church as an institution most cer- ble. You might be reading this magazine kind of right that imposes obligations on
tainly did not embrace poverty. The men- without owning the copy you’re perusing. other people. If you own bread, I can’t
dicants’ very existence was a rebuke to the Perhaps you’re at a bookshop and haven’t just eat it without your permission, as I
opulence and worldliness of the papal court yet paid for it, or perhaps you borrowed it legally could if you were a mendicant who
and the rest of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. from a friend. Although you are using the denied that it is his property. We might
At first, the church grudgingly accepted magazine, you do not own it, as shown by say, then, that property ownership is a
the mendicants’ lifestyle nonetheless, and the fact that you have no legal rights over right that was discovered precisely in the
criticism initially came from rival theolo- it. If someone steals the magazine you’ve process of dis-owning it.
gians at the university of Paris rather than borrowed, it will be its true owner and not © PROF. PETER ADAMSON 2017
the papacy. But in the early 1320s Pope John you who has legal recourse against the thief. Peter Adamson is the author of A History of
XXII declared the Franciscan stance inco- On behalf of the mendicants, the anti- Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2
herent, and even heretical, since it falsely papal polemicist Marsilius of Padua argued & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on
claimed that Christ owned nothing, when that one can only take ownership of some- his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

24 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Moral Certainty
Toni Vogel Carey connects the dots.

he quaint-sounding term ‘moral certainty’ dates to me that we may believe, by a highly probable guess, that in the
back to c.1400. The Oxford English Dictionary void all speeds would be entirely equal.”
defines it as “a degree of probability so great as to
admit of no reasonable doubt.” In the seventeenth Galileo’s methodological continuum has been called the first
century it became an important term in the law; according to a principle of relativity. In a thought experiment in 1632, Galileo
commentator in 1677 it meant “such a certainty as may war- realized that a sailor working below deck on a windowless ship
rant the judge to proceed to the sentence of death against the traveling on a perfectly smooth sea would not be able to tell
indicted party.” By the eighteenth century ‘moral certainty’ had whether the ship was moving or stationary. And by similar rea-
become interchangeable with ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ not soning, he suggested, it would make no difference to our expe-
only in the law, but also in philosophy and polite conversation rience whether the Sun revolves around the Earth or the Earth
– even in religion, where it was argued into the nineteenth cen- revolves around it. This in itself didn’t prove that the Earth
tury that the truth of Christianity could be proven “beyond a ‘moves’, but it made the idea less counterintuitive, just as watch-
reasonable doubt” (see p.31 of Barbara Shapiro’s paper refer- ing ships disappear over the horizon had made it less counter-
enced at the end). intuitive that the Earth might be round rather than flat.
Of course, if you’re not sure whether guilt has been estab-
lished beyond a reasonable doubt, it might not help much to
Beneath decks on a
ask whether it has been established to a moral certainty. Then calm sea, could you
again, it might, for the two phrases have somewhat different tell whether you are
connotations. One goes to the idea of external, objective proof, in motion or at rest?
the other to the subjective question whether one feels able in
good conscience to convict and sentence a fellow human being.
DNA evidence today is capable of satisfying both criteria; but
of course this is a relatively recent development, and I’m get-
ting way ahead of myself.
We speak of a scientific revolution in the seventeenth cen-
tury largely because of a paradigm shift from qualitative to quan-
titative thinking. Aristotle had understood science as the study
of qualitative causes, and this idea became set in stone for some
2,000 years until Galileo declared in 1623 – in a remark so famil-
iar it’s in Bartlett’s – that the universe is written in the ‘language’
of mathematics, without which we cannot understand a single
‘word’ of it.
Another difference was that Aristotle and the scholastics had
seen the world in terms of either-or dichotomies: true or false,
hot or cold, motion or rest. By contrast, Galileo saw rest not as
the opposite of motion, but as the lowest degree of slowness (a
speed of zero). His idea of a scientific law was a mathematically
ordered continuum leading to an ideal limit-case, something
we never expect to be reached. Aristotle defined science in terms
of what occurs “always” or “for the most part” (Metaphysics
1027a20); Galileo’s view was that it deals with what occurs at
the ideal limit, and so never (Carey 2012). In his last work Two
New Sciences (1638), he gave this account of his law of falling
bodies (1974, p.76):

“If we find in fact that moveables of different weight differ less and
less in speed as they are situated in more and more yielding medi-
ums: and that finally, despite extreme differences in weight, their
diversity of speed in the most tenuous medium of all (though not
void) is found to be very small and almost unobservable, then it seems

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 25

Galileo wasn’t saved from the Inquisition by the fact that he Newton was not known for generosity in crediting others (I
did not introduce the idea of a heliocentric universe, but merely dished the dirt on Newton in Philosophy Now Issue 88). But he
supported Copernicus, who did. Needless to say, however, cites Galileo numerous times in the Principia, understandably,
Copernicus and Galileo prevailed; and so did the method of since he relied heavily on the Galilean continuum in working
approximation to an ideal limit. Robert Boyle (1627-91), who out his laws of motion, and in uniting such diverse phenomena
studied in Italy during Galileo’s lifetime, built his ideal gas law as the revolution of the planets, the tides, and the fall of an apple
on the concept of a methodological continuum. And another under the single principle of gravitation.
who abandoned either/or opposites for “a world of continua,” You may not have heard of Dugald Stewart, the last of the
Lorraine Daston writes in Classical Probability in the Enlighten- constellation of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers who included
ment, was Jakob Bernoulli (1655-1705). He introduced the idea David Hume and Adam Smith; but few philosophers were more
of degrees of probability from zero to one, “a graduated spec- highly regarded in the first half of the nineteenth century. In
trum of belief...from total ignorance or uncertainty to firm con- 1820 former President John Adams wrote to former President
viction or ‘moral’ certainty.” Among other things, this helped Thomas Jefferson: “I think Dugald... has searched deeper and
to “bridge the chasm between the absolute doubt of the skep- reasoned more correctly than Aristotle, Descartes, Locke,
tics and the dogmatic certainty of the scholastics.” Berkeley, Hume...” (Adams-Jefferson Letters, pp.560-1). I men-
Probabilities could be combined to increase the degree of tion Stewart here because he connected the dots from explana-
certainty. Testimony by two or more witnesses was more con- tory parsimony to probability to moral certainty:
vincing and provided greater certainty than the same testimony
by a single witness. Boyle spoke of a “concurrence of probabil- “The probability of a hypothesis increases in proportion to the
ities” that “mount to a moral certainty” (Shapiro p.30). In eigh- number of phenomena for which it accounts, and to the simplicity of
teenth-century America, James Wilson, a signer of the Decla- the theory by which it explains them; and…in some instances, this prob-
ration of Independence and the Constitution, and an early Jus- ability may amount to a moral certainty.” (Works 1829, 2: 299-300;
tice of the Supreme Court, spoke of a continuum of evidence italics original.)
rising by “insensible gradation, from possible to probable and
from probable to the highest degree of moral certainty.” Graphing
(Shapiro p.47) Squared paper had been used since the seventeenth century for
If probability was important in the law, it was essential to the designing ships. But not until well into the eighteenth was it
insurance industry. In 1777 Buffon set moral certainty equal to used for plotting data, and the term ‘graph’ was coined only in
a probability of 0.9999; and reckoning from existing mortality 1878 (Hankins pages 605 and 608). It was mainly the astronomer
tables, he pronounced it a moral certainty that a healthy 56- and polymath scientist John Herschel (son of William Herschel,
year-old man would survive the next 24 hours. Adam Smith who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781) who put this method
remarked in Wealth of Nations (1776) (I.x.b.27), “Adventure upon on the map. And as late as 1833 squared paper was still so new
all the tickets in the lottery, and you lose for certain; and the that Herschel took pains to write out minute instructions how
greater the number of your tickets the nearer you approach to to construct it. He used it for calculating the orbits of double
this certainty.” In London, however, you could buy insurance stars, which (unlike objects in your rear-view mirror) tend to
against almost anything, even “losing at the lottery.” (Daston be farther away from each other than they appear. In effect he
pages 77, 164, 207, 348) Quantification had its virtues; but one had to find “the best approximation of the orbit from very poor
effect of rendering moral certainty mathematical was to de- data” (p.609). He solved this problem by recording the points
moralize it (Hankins p.630). he observed, and drawing a simplifying curve through as many
points as possible. He called his method ‘graphical’ (p.608).
Simplicity and Moral Certainty Herschel’s friend and fellow scientist William Whewell called
Philosophers and theoretical scientists alike have historically it the ‘method of curves,’ and used it himself to study the tides.
placed a high value on simplicity, or explanatory parsimony. By correcting for errors of observation and “random fluctua-
Thales reduced everything to water, Heraclitus to fire – and tions caused by wind, barometric pressure, and the like,”
flux. Duns Scotus and William of Occam codified this in the Whewell found that the method of curves provided a result
scholastic principle known as Occam’s Razor: “Plurality is not “more true than the individual facts themselves.” Herschel pro-
to be posited without necessity”; or, “What can be done with nounced it “a conviction approaching a moral certainty” that the
fewer would in vain be done with more.” resultant ellipse is “close to the correct orbit” – good enough to
Occam’s Razor resurfaced in modern science as Newton’s consider the risk of error “more or less infinitesimal,” something
first Rule of Reasoning in his Principia of 1687: “we make up our minds to disregard” (pages 618 and 630-1).
Graphing may at first seem like a simple mechanical proce-
“We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are dure. But two observers may plot the same dots and yet not con-
both true and sufficient to explain the appearances. To this purpose nect them by the same curve; so graphing falls somewhere
the philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is “between observation and theory.” Beyond a mere “sum of the
in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and particulars” (the dots), it involves “a subjective leap dependent
affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.” on judgment.” Either you “see the law or you do not.” (Hankins
pages 621-2, 625, and 633)

26 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Phi- The motto of the Royal Society of London, which played a
losophy (1830) is said to be the first original book on scientific crucial role in the Scientific Revolution, was Nullius in verba,
method to appear since Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum of meaning, “Take no one’s word for it.” So Lloyd’s point has long
1620 had helped launch the Scientific Revolution. Among other been a truism. But is it true? How many will ever hear the sound
things, Herschel refers here to “that general law which seems of two black holes colliding, the little ‘chirp’ that recently con-
to pervade all nature – the law... of continuity.” Even something firmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity? For that matter,
“generally regarded the most opaque in nature,” he says, is “pos- how many can even understand Newton’s Principia or Einstein’s
sessed of some slight degree of transparency.” Thus “opacity is general relativity theory, much less work out the laws of grav-
not a contrary or antagonist... of transparency, but only its extreme ity and relativity on their own?
lowest degree.” (section 200; italics original.) Nor is this the only problem with the idea that scientific cer-
Herschel associated this form of continuity with the idea that tainty is available to all, or even most. As we saw with the method
“nature does not act by leaps.” And Charles Darwin, who was of graphing, different people look at the same thing and see it
greatly influenced by Herschel’s book, adhered to this same differently. This goes to Thomas Kuhn’s famous notion of par-
gradualist principle. Thirty years later, however, Herschel saw adigm shifts. The Aristotelians looked at a swinging body, Kuhn
fit to argue against Darwin that homo sapiens couldn’t have says in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970, p.119), and
evolved gradually from the lower animals, but must have been saw something “falling with difficulty;” Galileo looked at it and
expressly created by God. (I wrote about John Herschel, and saw a pendulum, which led him to the laws of falling bodies and
the tortured back-and-forth between him and Darwin on this motion along an inclined plane.
point, in Philosophy Now Issue 48.) Another problem with Lloyd’s thesis is that even when knowl-
edge has been available for centuries, philosophers don’t nec-
Not-So-Moral Certainty essarily get the message. Take the difference between Aristo-
As two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings (in 1984 and 1994) tle’s qualitative and Galileo’s quantitative methods. During the
attest, the term ‘moral certainty’ is no longer in use, and few 1960s, in addition to Kuhn’s idea of revolutionary paradigm
judges or jurors even know what it used to mean (Shapiro 51). shifts, philosophers of science were trying to find workable
The term went into decline after 1850, when Herschel intro- analyses of such notions as law-likeness, disposition and ten-
duced the term ‘practical certainty’ in place of ‘moral certainty’ dency, and dealing with the intractable ceteris paribus (‘other
in order “to avoid the ambiguities in the word ‘moral’.” (Han- things being equal’) clause. Nobody seemed to realize that
kins pp.618 and 630-1) Galileo had long ago provided a concept of lawlikeness that
So it is interesting that in 1996 Philosophy Now ran an article allows us to bypass and ignore these ‘other things’. One who
(in Issue 15) by Peter Lloyd called ‘The Dangers of Moral Cer- did see this clearly was Kurt Lewin, the ‘father’ of social psy-
tainty’. What Lloyd meant by moral certainty, though, had little chology. He wrote in 1931 that Galileo had replaced “dichoto-
to do with probability, or graphing, or a continuum ending in mous classifications [like] the distinction between lawful and
an ideal limit. What he meant was certainty about morals. He chance events [with] continuous gradations,” so that “whether
drew a contrast, in fact, between this ‘dangerous’ kind of moral the event described by the law occurs rarely or often has noth-
certainty and the ‘public certainty’ available in the sciences, ing to do with the law. Indeed, in a certain sense, the law refers
which are ‘open to all comers’ with the time and resources to only to cases that are never realized, or only approximately real-
repeat the relevant experiments and see for themselves. ized, in the actual course of events.” Lewin thought the field of
psychology in 1931 was facing many of the “theoretical diffi-
REFERENCES culties [that had] culminated in the conquest over Aristotelian
ways of thinking in physics” in the seventeenth century (1931,
pp.144-6 & 152-3)
• ‘Always or Never: Two Approaches to Ceteris Paribus’, Erkenntnis
Even though the laws of ideal gases in physics, of perfect
77, Toni Vogel Carey, 2012
speakers and hearers in linguistics, and of perfect competition
• Two New Sciences, Galileo Galilei,1638 translation. S. Drake, 1974 in economics, are well known to most college-educated people
today, in psychology and philosophy the method of successive
• ‘A “Large and Graceful Sinuosity”: John Herschel’s Graphical approximation is still seen through a glass darkly, if at all. In
Method’, Isis 97, Thomas L.Hankins, 2006 these two fields, not much seems to have changed since 1931,
• ‘The Conflict between Aristotelian and Galilean Modes of
or even since the seventeenth century. Moral certainty came
into use, caught on, and then went out of vogue. The method
Thought in Contemporary Psychology’, Journal of General
of approximation that supported it scientifically in the work of
Psychology 5, Kurt Lewin, 1931
Galileo, Boyle, Bernoulli and others came and stayed, but has
• Principia Mathematica, Sir Isaac Newton, 1687, 1726, translation, yet to fully catch on. I wouldn’t call that progress.
A. Motte, 1995 © DR TONI VOGEL CAREY 2017
Toni Vogel Carey has been a regular contributor to Philosophy Now
• ‘“Beyond Reasonable Doubt”: The Neglected Eighteenth-Century since 2002, and serves on its US advisory board. She is an indepen-
Context’, Law and Humanities 8, Barbara Shapiro, 2014 dent scholar who also publishes in scholarly journals, gives papers at
scholarly conferences (Oxford, Sorbonne, Princeton, Aberdeen, Toronto,
Rotterdam ...), and is concurrently at work on three books.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 27

“Will the real Derek Parfit

Mr Bowie
please stand up?”
Stefán Snævarr explores Derek Parfit’s ideas about
the self, and how they might apply to the complex (of)
personalities of David Bowie.

avid Bowie (1947-2016) was a man of many faces, The objection to 1) is that I would survive if just one half of
even many selves. He was baptized David Robert my brain had been successfully transplanted. People are known
Jones, but changed his name and his self by becom- to have survived even though half of their brains were destroyed.
ing David Bowie. Then Bowie adopted the personas The last possibility is not a coherent option, since the logic of
of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, and identity – that a thing is itself and not two things – excludes the
so on. In his song ‘D.J.’ from the album Lodger, Bowie sings “I possibility of there being two things that are both identical with
am a D.J., I am what I play.” Contemplating Bowie’s life raises one original thing, me. By the same token, it does not really make
a number of philosophical questions concerning the self. Are sense to say that either 2) or 3) are true, since both surviving broth-
we what we do, as he hints at in ‘D.J.’ and as Jean-Paul Sartre ers are exactly like me – are me for all intents and purposes.
said explicitly? Can we be the authors of our selves, as Friedrich Parfit argues that this thought experiment and its possibil-
Nietzsche and Michel Foucault maintained? Did David Jones ities show that identity in the logical sense is not what matters
truly recreate himself as David Bowie? Did David Bowie in his for the self. What matters here is psychological continuity: if the
turn recreate himself as Ziggy Stardust? And do Aladdin Sane’s resulting person is sufficiently strongly psychologically con-
multiple personalities include those of Bowie, Ziggy and the nected to me as I was before the transplantation, then it makes
elusive Mr Jones? Will the real Mr Jones please stand up? sense to say that the resulting person is me: not necessarily that
In this article, I will focus on Oxford philosophy professor the resulting person is identical with me, rather that there are
Derek Parfit’s analysis of the self in his book Reasons and Per- enough overlapping psychological facts about me and that later
sons (1984). I’ll begin by giving a short explanation of his person to say that they’re continuous with me. We might for
approach, then proceed to critique it. I’ll put forth some criti- instance share a host of memories. More precisely, for psycho-
cal arguments of my own, then discuss criticisms of Parfit made logical continuity, there must be what Parfit calls ‘strong con-
by Paul Ricœur and Marya Schechtman criticisms of Parfit. nectedness’ between the current me and a past person. He says
we have a case of strong connectedness when at least half the
Parfit’s Continuity number of psychological attributes that hold at any give time
Born in 1942, Parfit, who died on New Year’s Day, was a British for a given individual are maintained at a later time. This would
philosopher of the same generation as Bowie. They evidently be true for someone when asleep and when he wakes, for instance.
shared an interest in the questions of selves and identities. Continuous personal identity over a lifetime is then defined in
In Reasons and Persons, Parfit argues that it isn’t true that every terms of overlapping chains of strong connectedness. Moreover,
human individual must possess one and only one self which per- a person at a given time is either strongly connected to a per-
sists through his or her (adult?) life-time. He also tries to show son who existed earlier, or is not. There is no middle ground.
that the concept of personal identity is empty. To vindicate these Furthermore, personal identity is an all-or-nothing relation:
theories, he conducts some mind-blowing thought experiments either Adam and Brian are the same person, or they are not.
of the science fiction kind. Let’s take a look at Parfit’s ‘My Divi- Let us assume then that Adam’s brain-halves are transplanted
sion’ thought experiment (pp.253-266). Suppose I am one of into the bodies of Brian and Charlie. Then, given psychologi-
identical triplets. My brain is surgically removed and divided cal continuity, both Brian and Charlie are identical with Adam.
into two halves. Each half is transplanted into each of my broth- However, Brian and Charlie are not identical with each other.
ers, who have had their own brains removed to make room for Doesn’t the non-identicalness of Brian and Charlie create prob-
mine. Both the resulting persons remembers my life, has my lems for the psychological continuity view? Parfit tries to avoid
personality, is psychologically continuous with me, and believes the problem by modifying the definition of identity. He main-
that he is me. Now, what has happened to the ‘real’ me? tains that personal identity is constituted by non-branching psy-
There are only four possibilities: chological continuity, such that Adam is the same person as Brian
1) I do not survive; only if Adam is psychologically continuous with Brian and nobody
2) I survive as one of the two people; else. In other words, if Adam is psychologically continuous with
3) I survive as the other person; both Brian and Charlie, and Brian and Charlie are distinct, then
4) I survive as both. Adam is not the same person as either Brian or Charlie.

28 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

To explain his ideas, Parfit uses clubs as an analogy to selves. were made by other selves. It also means the giving-up of ego-
Let’s assume that a certain club disbands, but later a few of its ism, not just because there is no such thing as our continuous
members reconvene. Is it the same club? The question has no ego, but also because we have no more reason to care more
definitive answer. Since a club’s being that club depends on more about our future selves than about the selves of other people
basic facts, concerning for instance the activities of its members, now or later. As Parfit emphasizes (pp.281-282), this is in accor-
there is no fact of the matter about whether it is the same club. dance with Zen Buddhist views. Parfit approvingly discusses the
In other words, the question of identity is not the main question Buddhist view that the self is in some ways a fiction, and that
here. As long as we know all the facts about who is meeting, understanding this is the way to enlightenment.
where, when and why, we know everything that we need to know
about the club. If we still felt that there must be some deep fact Surgical Complications
that determined club identity, then we would be disturbed by One might reasonably ask whether such wildly speculative exam-
our inability to give a clear-cut answer to the question. Parfit’s ples as Parfit’s My Division thought experiment can have any
point is that the identity of persons is similar to the identity of bearing on anything. What exactly is proven by their use? What
clubs, and cannot have a definitive, clear-cut answer. In the trans- if brain-transplantation and teleportation turn out to be practi-
plantation case, he says that the original person survives as both cal impossibilities? Wouldn’t that undercut his arguments? Also,
of the resulting persons, but is identical to neither. such examples as Parfit uses can only be used to generate theo-
ries given certain intuitions. However, most of us have the intu-
Multiplying The Self ition that we have a continuous identity and one self. So why
Parfit maintains not only that it is logically possibly that we can should Parfit privilege his intuitions due his outlandish exam-
change selves during our lifetime, but also that it’s logically pos- ples over the intuition most people have that they possess con-
sible that people can have simultaneous multiple selves (if it tinuous identity and one self?
makes sense on his view to say that we have selves). So David Furthermore, wasn’t David Bowie’s creation of different char-
Jones could have changed self from David Bowie to Ziggy Star- acters just a playing with ideas? Wasn’t David himself simply
dust; and Ziggy Stardust could have had the self of both David someone with one self – that of David Jones? To be sure, he said
Jones and David Bowie at the same time. in the Cracked Actor interview that there are moments when he’s
Parfit further says that it is logically possible not only that not quite sure whether he’s himself or one of his creations; but
selves can divide, but that two selves can merge into one – if, for that might just have been some kind of delusion or joke. Per-
instance, two halves from different brains were fused into one haps it was only wishful thinking or poetic exaggeration when
brain. Note however the caveat about logical, that is, theoretical, he sang “Gonna have to be a different man” (from the song
possibility. He is not saying that this could happen in the real ‘Changes’ on the album Hunky Dory). Maybe we are simply
world. Despite this, he notes that there have been split-brain cases stuck with one given identity and one self, even if we might sin-
where people report that another person is inside their head with cerely wish to be different, to change our identities and selves.
them, and these erstwhile split-brain individuals do act as if they Be that as it may, Parfit’s conclusion to the My Division
were two persons. Perhaps Aladdin Sane was such a split person- thought experiment makes sense on a radically materialist view.
ality. In the Seventies TV documentary/interview, Cracked Actor, This is the view that matter, its configurations and movements,
Mr Bowie said that Mr Sane had many personalities. is all there is. If the self is but a function of material configura-
Parfit’s view of the changing self has both moral and existen- tions, then copying and dividing these configurations, and by
tial ramifications. It means we should not worry too much about implication dividing the self, is surely logically possible. But
the future, because our current selves will not be around then. suppose instead that the self is a mental entity, albeit tied to the
Similarily, we should not brood about past mistakes, as they body through the brain. If that’s the case, then the My Division

A line of various Bowies, from various album covers

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 29

thought experiment would not necessarily tell us anything about have any compelling reasons to take a radical materialist inter-
the nature of the self. pretation of the My Division example, which would make its
I do not exclude the possibility of radical materialism being conclusions viable.
true. The trouble is that we do not have any conclusive evi- Nevertheless, there might be a viable version of the My Divi-
dence in favour of this idea. Indeed, does it make sense to look sion example. If, as Parfit assumes, psychological continuity, not
for empirical evidence supporting radical materialism? If ‘Yes’, bodily (that is, brain) continuity, is what matters for personal con-
what kind of evidence would we be talking about? And even if tinuity, then we could think the self is an immaterial psychologi-
that question could be usefully answered, empirical evidence is cal entity, and perhaps this entity could divide in a similar way to
fallible, so we cannot look for conclusive empirical evidence in bodies without any material processes being involved.
favour of radical materialism. One problem is that we can easily imagine how material con-
What about analytical (that is, purely theoretical) necessi- figurations can divide, but can we fathom the division of some-
ties? The statement ‘the only thing that exists is matter’ is def- thing mental? Further, we have hardly any empirical evidence
initely not an analytically true statement – that is, it is not true in favour of the contention that there are mental entities. In
simply in virtue of its meaning, as the statement ‘two plus two addition, no logically necessary truths are involved in positing
equals four’ is – since it can be negated without logical incon- their existence, since statements such as ‘There are mental enti-
sistency: ‘It is not true that only matter exists’ is also a mean- ties distinct from material entities’ can be coherently contra-
ingful statement. Of course, this might be an over-simplifica- dicted too: ‘There are no mental entities distinct from material
tion, and to show that materialism is theoretically necessary we entities’ is also a meaningful statement.
might need a complex analysis of the Parfitian kind. However,
the onus is on those who maintain that such an analysis is pos- Further Divisions Over My Division
sible to demonstrate the theoretical necessity of materialism. The late French philosopher Paul Ricœur quite correctly said
Maybe the theory that matter is all there is can be justified that Parfit just assumes without argument that the self should
as an inference to the best explanation of our experience of the be analysed as an isolated phenomenon which might or might
world, from the fact that the continuity of most of our sense- not exist. Questions such as ‘Could the self be essentially a social
impressions seems to be rooted in the mind-independent exis- phenomenon?’ are not even raised by Parfit. For instance, maybe
tence of material objects? Say the cheese in the larder has dis- Bowie’s self was irreducibly part of the society and culture in
appeared. Last night scratching sounds were heard from the which he acted. But maybe the self is irreducibly a social phe-
larder. There have also been sightings of mice recently. The nomenon (see Ricœur’s Oneself as Another, pp.130-139, 1992).
inference to the best explanation here, given this evidence, is In that case Parfit would be dead wrong.
that mice ate the cheese. Similarily, I repeatedly see some Parfit’s arguments concerning strong connectedness are also
colours, a given shape, and experience a certain substantiality, not impressive. How does one measure strong connectedness
when I am using my kettle. The best explanation of the stabil- or count psychological attributes? If there are unclear bound-
ity of these sense-impressions may be that they stem from a aries between two or more, how should they be counted? Why
concrete, stable, material object – the kettle that generates them. do half of the connections have to hold, as he claimed, rather
(See Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduc- than 75%, or 45%? This smacks of arbitrariness, as American
tion, pp.29-33, 2002.) However, even if postulating the exis- philosopher Marya Schechtman indeed points out in The Con-
tence of material objects is the best explanation of the stability stitution of Selves (pp.43-44, 1996). There she asks us to imag-
of our sense-impressions, it does not follow that radical mate- ine that her present person-stage is connected to a previous one
rialism can be vindicated by this, as there may be minds as well by exactly half the connections that hold every day in the lives
as matter. Again, the burden of proof is on whomever claims of nearly every person. If there are overlapping chains of such
materialism follows from this. The upshot is that we do not connectedness going back to the person-stage who was there

30 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

ten minutes ago, then she’s the same person she was ten min- are those of a given person – for instance, what characteristics
utes ago. Now let us assume that in the next moment one con- are really hers, and not, say, the result of brainwashing, or even
nection is lost, without a new one being added. On Parfit’s view, other external influences, such as education? How can we tell
there is no longer strong connectness between the present per- which of her actions, thoughts and experiences are really in
son-stage of Marya Schechtman and the one of ten minutes character, and which are less so, or even not so? What thoughts
ago. But it also means that Marya Schechtman, who was sitting and character traits really do belong to her? The question of
here for the previous ten minutes, has vanished! There’s some- what traits are mine seems important, perhaps because by them
thing deeply counterintuitive about this. It’s also inconsistent, we can tell which actions I’m really responsible for.
since because she has only lost some connections with who she There certainly was corporeal continuity between David
was a few moments ago, she also is the same person as she was Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane; but to complicate mat-
a few moments ago! ters, one of Bowie’s central psychological characteristics was his
The same counterintuitiveness holds for Parfit’s ‘non-branch- unique imagination, manifest in, among other things, his ability
ing’ concept. Schechtman points out that it flies in the face of to invent characters and put on new personas.
common sense to believe that Adam and Brian might be the
same person if Charlie does not exist, but not the same person Conclusion
if Charlie does exist, despite no other facts about Adam and Parfit maintains that it is not logically necessary that each indi-
Brian being altered by the fact of Charlie’s existence. vidual has one given self: it is not unthinkable that more than
For these and various other reasons, Schechtman wants to one self can inhabit the same body, that selves are divisible, or
replace Parfit’s psychological continuity view with a theory that that selves can merge, and that in some sense, the self is an illu-
focuses on what kind of characteristics a given self has. So instead sion. To make his case he uses scenarios such as My Division.
of saying that we know who Adam is if and only if we know there But he has not succeeded in showing that the example is viable,
is non-branching psychological continuity between Adam at one let alone that it yields necessary conclusions. His thinking seems
time, and Adam later, we say that we can recognise Adam again to presuppose materialism, and materialism can hardly be proven
later because we know the characteristics Adam has. (To be sure, to be true, either logically or empirically. His arguments could
re-identification is of great importance when we’re trying to perhaps be given a dualist twist, but proving dualism is just as
work out whether Ziggy Stardust is the same person as David difficult as proving materialism. To make matters worse, Parfit
Bowie.) Schechtman says the answers to such questions largely does not show that his speculative science fiction examples have
concern not psychological but corporeal continuity: we recog- any bearing for the truth of real-world matters of the self. Why
nise bodies before we recognise minds. The psychological dimen- should our intuition that we possess one self be less reliable
sion is of greater importance when we have the sort of identity than his intuitions based on his far-fetched examples? Further-
crises that lead us to ask “Who am I, really?” In such contexts more, as Ricœur points out, Parfit ignores the possibility of the
we focus on ourselves as subjects and refer to the psychological self being essentially social; and Schechtman puts forth force-
characteristics we do or don’t possess. ful arguments against Parfit’s view that a self is really only a case
Identification via character refers to the set of personality of psychological continuity, and that the identities do not mat-
traits that each person has which make her the person she is. ter. Knowing a self is not only a matter of physical reidentifi-
To understand this identity, one must know not only which cation, but also of knowing its characteristics.
characteristics form part of a person’s history, but the role of It certainly does matter to any Bowie fan whether or not Mr
these characteristics in that history. One must also know which Stardust was identical with The Thin White Duke.
of the characteristics are central to the person – which of them © PROF. STEFÁN SNÆVARR 2017
she regards as part of her true identity – and which not. But Stefán Snævarr is Professor of Philosophy at the Inland Norway
what does it mean to say that some particular characteristics University of Applied Sciences.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 31

The Virtue of Shared Experience
David Rönnegard shares his experience with us.

ears ago I was attending a conference in Honolulu siveness that I am primarily thinking about, but rather the char-
when one morning on Waikiki Beach I experienced acter of shared vs solitary experiences. Are my experiences not
the most beautiful sunrise. Alone. It was a stunning good enough on their own?
sight, and it made me feel terrible. How could this I have previously written in Philosophy Now (‘Atheist in a Fox-
be? How could a lack of companionship transform an other- hole’, ‘The Party Without Me’) that the meaning of life, as I see
wise beautiful event into a depressing experience? it, resides with our shared experiences. Our loved ones are the
As we travel through life we learn more about ourselves and objects of our affection as well as partners on life’s journey. In a
who we are. These insights come to us in bursts as we enjoy certain sense, a life fully lived is in part lived through others. I
and cope with life’s highs and lows. Particular events force us have argued that this is what we are left with if we reject an
to question and answer who we are. But such understanding appeal to a higher power to give our lives meaning. But perhaps
doesn’t exist in a relational vacuum. We understand ourselves I might be overstating my case if there is a wide range of psy-
in part by recognizing how we are similar and different to oth- chological dispositions towards shared experiences.
ers. The sad sunrise made me realize my deep need for shared Indeed, there is a broad spectrum of experiences that people
experiences, but it has just dawned on me that we are not all find valuable and which give their lives meaning. A brisk walk
like this. Some people seem perfectly fine on their own, while through an enchanting forest, the smile on your friend’s face, pride
others need company to accentuate an event, or perhaps to even on your graduation day. Clearly not all valuable experiences need
enjoy it at all. Is this just a difference of character traits among to be shared, although many by their very nature do. But irre-
people, or is one disposition better than the other? At first sight spective of what we value, the experience gets amplified if it is
it would appear that an inability to be satisfied with one’s own shared, albeit at different intensities. As such, sharing experiences
experiences is quite an existential handicap. makes them more significant, makes them more meaningful.
Recent psychological research suggests that shared experi- Nevertheless, the sharing of an experience is not only about
ences are amplified – both the good and the bad. For example, amplification. Many of our most valuable moments are special pre-
the sweetness or bitterness of a piece of chocolate is intensified
when shared and compared with someone else. But such research
is narrow in scope and masks both differences in types of expe-
riences as well as individual differences in the magnitude of

amplification. Can such variances be significant enough to be

pathological? Is there something wrong with me?
The idea that we as a species are inherently social creatures
will not surprise anyone. If we step back for a moment and put
on our anthropological glasses, we can on a daily basis observe
our fellow humans gazing at their televisions for hours bewitched
by other humans interacting. This curious phenomenon is surely
rooted in our own desire for interaction and a sense of belong-
ing. It is no coincidence that social shunning has long been
likened to a death penalty. But it is not the yearning for inclu-

32 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Philosophical Haiku
cisely because they are shared experiences. The moment you got
engaged; refurbishing an old boat with your son; getting caught
horsing around with your best friend. These experiences assume
their significance in the act of sharing. And this highlights that it
isn’t sufficient for an event to be shared with just anyone to make it
significant. Refurbishing a boat with a colleague is just a job. Get-
ting caught horsing around with a stranger is just embarrassing.
Who we share an experience with can be central to its meaning.
So what’s so great about shared experiences? Besides being
some of our most memorable moments, and also amplifying
our experiences, shared experiences have the virtue that they
continue to be shared. For one thing, sharing allows the expe-
rience to be relived more vividly through mutual recollection
and the telling of anecdotes. And for someone like myself, whose
memory leaves a little something to be desired, it also serves THOMAS PAINE
the function of actual recollection. Sharing an experience affirms
the reality of what is being witnessed. If I’ve had an experience
but no one was there to share it, did it happen? The character
Just revolution:
of the experience, its sweetness or bitterness, is validated by Common sense proscribes despots
another’s similar perception. Nature prescribes rights.
As an event is recollected over time, the totality of a shared .

experience can be distinguished from the initial experience. Bit- homas Paine was exactly the sort of revolution-making rights-
ter chocolate might taste more bitter when shared, getting busted loving do-gooder that Edmund Burke found tiresome. But lots of
with your friend might be a nuisance in the moment; but the other people liked him. Paine was born to be a revolutionary –
lasting impression is sweeter by having been through it with which was lucky, because there happened to be two jolly good revolu-
someone else. As such a shared experience need not only be tions during his life-time.
viewed in terms of circumscribed moments in time, but may With Benjamin Franklin’s help, the British-born Paine emigrated to
also be viewed more broadly. Together with the select few (or the American colonies in 1774 to rouse the rabble to overthrow the
special someone) who accompany us through life, there is a yoke of British oppression. Paine’s book Common Sense (1776)
sense that more than you alone are bearing witness to your exis- explained to the still politically-undeveloped Americans why they were
tence. By sharing our experiences there is someone other than justified in telling King George III to shove off. The book became an all-
ourselves who is aware of the sum total of our journey. time American bestseller. Fellow Founding Father and second Ameri-
This temporal dimension of shared experiences also has the can President John Adams even said that without Paine there would’ve
virtue of being one of the few ways we can become immortal. been no revolution (he might’ve added that there’s no revolution with-
Because a shared experience doesn’t belong to us alone, it has the out pain!).
quality of living on once we are gone. By living on in the memo- Having sorted out the Americans, Paine headed off to France to
ries of those we leave behind, we do not get a new lease on life, take care of the revolution there. In response to Burke’s hostile Reflec-
but in a certain sense, the lease on the life we have had gets extended. tions on the Revolution in France (1790), he penned The Rights of Man
So is there something wrong with me, or you? Clearly being (1791), in which he explained how it is that everyone comes to have
dependent on others to heighten our experiences and make lots of rights to lots of things (thereby laying the groundwork for the
them more meaningful makes us psychologically vulnerable. ‘Me generation’). He claims that human rights come to us from nature
Our state of mind is not within our sole control, but contingent – we’re born with them – and if the sovereign isn’t doing a good job in
on being accompanied. protecting our rights and providing us with what we need, one of those
There are ways of mitigating this vulnerability. For exam- rights says we can get ourselves a new sovereign.
ple, meditation techniques can allow us to find contentment in Paine spent most of the 1790s living in France, even being elected
our own headspace. Finding peace of mind in solitude can help to the revolutionary National Convention. Then the usual story: he joined
us be less exposed to the contingencies of life. But such solitary the wrong group of revolutionaries, the revolutionary leader Robe-
solace surely cannot itself be what fundamentally brings our spierre took a dislike to him, and he was arrested and imprisoned. He
lives meaning. only just managed to keep his head. Robespierre lost his in the mean-
If our lives have meaning it resides with us, but not necessarily time, effectively saving Paine’s. Paine (possibly) finished writing The
as isolated islands of self-contentment. Rather, validation is pro- Age of Reason (1794) while in prison.
vided by our companions. Our most memorable moments, the When not stirring up revolutions, Paine was just your typical humble
terrific and the tragic, are shared. The need to share experiences corset-maker, which it was his right to be.
makes us vulnerable, but it might also be the meaning of life. © TERENCE GREEN 2017
© DR DAVID RÖNNEGARD 2017 Terence is a peripatetic (though not Peripatetic) writer, historian and
David Rönnegard has a PhD in Philosophy from the London School lecturer. He holds a PhD in the history of political thought from
of Economics, and is a researcher and teacher in corporate social respon- Columbia University, NYC, and lives with his wife and their dog in
sibility in Stockholm. Wellington, NZ. He blogs at

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 33

Street Philosopher
Daydreaming In Prague
Seán Moran rambles purposefully about the streets of the Czech city.

e can only guess at the lurid
thoughts pulsating through her
mind; and the dog’s owner is
just as mysterious. My photograph taken
on a Prague street gives no reliable access
to the thoughts of the two walkers. In fact,
we don’t always know what we ourselves
think, let alone another human being. As
Sigmund Freud puts it, a person “is not
even master in his own house, but... must
remain content with the veriest scraps of
information about what is going on uncon-
sciously in his own mind” (A General
Introduction to Psychoanalysis, 1920).
Incidentally, Freud is honoured by a
strange statue in Prague, it being the sort
of city where you just don’t know what lies
around the next corner (or in Freud’s case,
hangs by one hand from a long pole over
the street). But if we are not even transpar-
ent to ourselves, what hope have we of
understanding another person?
With non-human animals, such as the
dog in the photograph, our difficulties are
even greater. In his book Mortal Questions
(1979), American thinker Thomas Nagel
asks, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’. We can
just about visualize being a human trapped
in a bat’s body, but that’s not an authentic
bat in all its battiness. It’s less easy to imag-
ine hanging upside down from a church
belfry, eating a moth that you tracked
down by echolocation, then urinating on
the archdeacon, unless it’s a hazy memory
of a drunken initiation ceremony for the
Society of Sonar Engineers. But even if
you can imagine this, the experience is that
of an intoxicated Homo sapiens in a bat cos-
tume, not the genuine schtick. Along simi-
lar lines, Ludwig Wittgenstein claims that
“if a lion could talk, we would not under-
stand him.” (In my daydream, the lion says:
“I don’t understand Wittgenstein either.”)
The point is that the world-views, con- say. Furthermore, we can sometimes figure dream. To help us to rove mentally, we can
cerns and experiences of bats and lions are out what’s on the minds of our fellow also roam physically. The French poet
so far removed from our own that we human beings. But occasionally our Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) invented
would struggle to find common ground thoughts and feelings are so fugitive that the term ‘flâneur’ to describe those who
with them, and having some shared nobody could keep up, not even ourselves. habitually take unhurried, purposeless
assumptions is a prerequisite for meaning- We flit from one topic to the next in an strolls through the city streets.
ful communication. unpredictable way, like a moth dodging a Becoming a flâneur or flâneuse is a way
However, many dog owners claim to bat. of encouraging our minds to wander.
experience a rapport with their pets that Bringing a dog along would probably only
bridges the species gap, so that they do Wandering Aimlessly limit our movements (as well as intruding
know what Lassie is feeling. And Lassie, in One time our minds drift freely over ran- upon our thoughts when she encounters
turn, knows what mood they are in, they dom thoughts and feelings is when we day- another dog with an alluring scent).

34 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Street Philosopher
However, it was apparently once fashion- planning for the future. For example, side of the street. They stayed on the peri-
able in the Nineteenth Century to amble before I give a conference talk, I mentally patos – the covered walkway of the Lyceum
through the boulevards and arcades of visualise how it will unfold over time (as – that shielded the students and their
Paris with a tortoise on a leash. That seems well as hope that it’s engaging enough to strolling teacher from the Athenian sun.
to be more the action of a poseur than of a stop the audience from indulging in mind- But more random peregrinations can be
flâneur, though. Philosophical flâneurs wandering). In this case, the focused day- rewarding too. Charles Dickens walked
don’t have to be such dandies: our purpose dreaming is not only voluntary but pur- miles nightly around the Victorian London
is not to be seen, but rather to observe, and poseful too. And it has a narrative arc – a streets, dreaming up the plots and charac-
to think, as we saunter around town. property of all focused daydreaming. We ters of his books. And Wittgenstein also
‘Saunter’: now there’s a word with an might liken it to playing an internal video. ambled about, talking to himself (but not to
interesting etymology. If we are to believe Such mental rehearsal is an important part lions) in an effort to solve philosophical
American writer Henry David Thoreau of readying ourselves for something that problems. He said that he could “only think
(and not many do) it refers to “idle people has a narrative structure: a job interview, a clearly in the dark” and had “found the last
who roved about the country… under pre- complicated set of travel arrangements – or pool of darkness in Europe” in Connemara,
tence of going à la Sainte Terre, to the Holy a romantic tryst in Prague. Ireland. An Irish company now offers a
Land” (On Walking, 1863). Later saunter- Dorsch sees daydreaming as a with- ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein Walk’ for those who
ers like me typically have a camera to hand. drawal from the sensory world. But a want to follow in his footsteps.
According to Susan Sontag, photography is mind-wandering flâneur becomes a more
“an extension of the eye of the… flâneur... focused daydreamer when stimulated by an City Stimulation
The photographer is an armed version of image such as the poster in the photo. The city flâneur has a very different experi-
the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, Dorsch concedes that episodes of concen- ence from Wittgenstein on his rural hikes,
cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic trated daydreaming can punctuate free- though. Urban environments can assault
stroller who discovers the city as a land- association mind-wandering. Likewise, a the senses in ways that would threaten
scape of voluptuous extremes” (On random stroll around Prague acquires a some, but which others might find stimu-
Photography, 1973). Armed? Voluptuous? more purposeful flavour when something lating. When discussing city flânerie,
Cruising? Paging Dr Freud. piques our interest. We might chance Walter Benjamin (pronounced
Where was I? Ah yes, daydreaming. upon a side-street bar, from which the ‘Benyameen’), the Frankfurt School
In common with the nocturnal version, sounds of a jazz trio drifts. So we go in. philosopher, contrasts Erlebnis with
daydreaming lets us lose awareness of our Our attention can flit between the inner Erfahrung (Illuminations, 1968). Both
immediate physical surroundings and enter and outer worlds. As flâneurs, we inhabit a words mean ‘experience’, but the first sig-
an internal world of past events and future liminal zone: “that space between the phys- nifies a fleeting feeling of alienating sub-
possibilities. Some other practices, such as ical and the imaginary” (Bobby Seal, jectivity in response to the city’s sensory
mindfulness, encourage us to do the oppo- Psychogeographic Review, 2013). overload, while the second indicates the
site: to be fully present and in the moment. To some people, such physical and more lasting enrichment that the flâneur
But ‘zoning out’ in a daydream can free up mental ramblings are merely self-indulgent can experience with concentrated effort. I
cognitive resources to tackle a problem unproductive loafing. Aimless wandering, have oversimplified Benjamin’s nuanced
that’s bothering us, or help us to see things dreaming of romance and consorting with thoughts, but the concept remains that the
in a new light. We can casually and safely jazz musicians, seem to be decadent, use- physical and mental roving of humans
entertain a few imaginative scenarios to less activities. The word ‘loitering’ is around the city is sometimes edifying and
decide what appeals to us as we indulge in nowadays always used in a disapproving restoring for them. We don’t need to be
some flânerie. James Joyce gave the world an fashion: an offence against the imperative going anywhere in particular to arrive
insight into our streams of consciousness in of busy productivity. Going absent without somewhere interesting. As J.R.R. Tolkien
his 1922 masterpiece Ulysses. The book’s leave to indulge in reverie reduces our puts it in The Lord of the Rings: “not all
protagonist, Leopold Bloom, roams around ‘time on task’ – our attending to the busi- those who wander are lost.”
Dublin over the course of a single day, and ness of the day. But we should dismiss So wandering, both mentally and physi-
we read about both his outward experiences these pernicious notions. We are, after all, cally, can be A Good Thing. The day-
and the inner thoughts triggered by his per- human beings, not human doings. (We dreamer may experience new insights,
ambulations. might also question the description of which can be coaxed into our minds during
players of the smartphone game Pokémon episodes of flânerie. Who knows where
Daydreaming In Particular Go as ‘modern-day flâneurs’: their explo- they can take us? According to Edmund
Contemporary German philosopher Fabian rations are too goal-directed to deserve White in The Flâneur (2008), one who is “a
Dorsch distinguishes between mind-wan- that label.) stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles
dering and ‘focused daydreaming’ (Review of Notwithstanding, aimless meandering without apparent purpose but is secretly
Philosophy and Psychology, 2015). The differ- can be productive. Aristotle and the attuned to the history of the streets… is in
ence between the two is whether or not we Classical thinkers who followed him, as well covert search of adventure, aesthetic or
consciously control the topics of our as the Islamic philosophers al-Kindi and Ibn erotic.” Lucky Lassie.
thoughts. Mind-wandering happens during Rushd, are described as ‘Peripatetic’ © DR SEAN MORAN 2017
a boring lecture, he says: we surrender our- philosophers. This name comes from the Seán Moran is a philosopher in Waterford
selves freely to a random stream of con- Greek word ‘peripateo’, to walk around. Institute of Technology, Ireland, and a founder
sciousness. But focused daydreaming is a lot Admittedly, Aristotle and his companions of, a global network of
more structured, and can involve conscious kept to familiar paths and avoided the sunny people, ideas and events.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 35

Brief Lives
Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970)
Alistair MacFarlane looks at the possibilities of a logical life.

udolf Carnap has a major place in the history of analytic Berlin to work on wireless telegraphy.
philosophy. He was entranced by the promise that During the war he married Elizabeth Schöndube. They had
Bertrand Russell’s and A.N. Whitehead’s Principia Math- four children, but divorced in 1929. In 1933 he married Eliza-
ematica (1912) seemed to hold out for creating a logical foun- beth Ina Stögren. This second marriage flourished, lasting until
dation for mathematics, and by extension, philosophy. He was her death in 1964. The couple addressed each other as Carnap
even more excited by Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External and ina, the latter to be always written in lower case. Carnap
World (1914), in which Russell called for a reconstruction of all hated the name Rudolf and refused to be so called; ina just wanted
knowledge on the basis of our sense experiences alone, and to be different.
urged a search for the narrowest selection of basic concepts In 1918, at the war’s end, he returned to Jena to resume his
needed for this purpose. Carnap accepted this immense chal- studies. A combination of poverty and the chaos in post-war
lenge ,and produced Der Logische Aufbau der Welt (1928, trans- Germany made it impossible for him to find the books for his
lated as The Logical Structure of the World, 1967). His ideas were proposed field of research. He was rescued by an extraordinary
enthusiastically taken up by positivist philosophers, and the Auf- act of kindness by Bertrand Russell. The impoverished student
bau is often regarded as the quintessential statement of a posi- wrote to Russell describing both his proposed research topic
tivistic approach to the philosophy of science. Like Principia and his inability to acquire a copy of Russell’s Principia. Russell
Mathematica, the Aufbau is now considered a heroic failure, but replied by sending him a lengthy manuscript in which he had
one that has had a huge impact on philosophy. personally copied out and annotated all the relevant parts of that
Carnap’s second major undertaking, to develop a sound basis work. Vastly encouraged, and now suitably equipped, Carnap
for scientific reasoning, occupied him for most of the rest of his set out to write a dissertation, Der Raum (Space), in which he
working life, and represents his greatest achievement. showed that the contradictions in the theories of space main-
tained by mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers were
Early Life caused by their use of entirely different approaches while all
Rudolf Carnap was born on 18 May 1891, in Ronsdorf, near using the same terminology.
Dusseldorf, then in the Rhine Province of Prussia. His father When he submitted his thesis, the Physics department said
Johannes Carnap came from a family of poor weavers, but after it was too philosophical and the Philosophy department said it
long and hard work became the prosperous and respected owner was all physics. Both rejected it. Carnap had the good sense to
of a ribbon-making factory. Rudolf’s mother Anna (née Dorpfeld) swallow his pride, re-write it using a conventional Kantian
was a teacher and an aspiring author. As he watched his mother approach, and re-submit it to the Philosophy department, which,
write, the young Rudolf became fascinated by what he came to suitably mollified, accepted it. He had by now seen how to for-
regard as the magical activity of putting words on paper. Few mulate a positivistic approach to philosophy, but had received a
philosophers have imbibed at such an early age what was to warning that it would not be easy to communicate and promul-
become their major preoccupation: how do we create reliable gate his ideas in the way he sought.
descriptions of the world? At a conference in 1923 he had the good fortune to meet a
Rudolf had one sister (whose name he neglects to mention kindred spirit in Hans Reichenbach. Reichenbach introduced
in his autobiography!). Their mother obtained permission to him to Moritz Schlick, and in 1926 Schlick offered him a posi-
teach the children at home, but did so for only an hour a day. tion in the University of Vienna. Carnap moved to Vienna and
His father died when he was only four years old. Then the fam- became a member of the Vienna Circle.
ily moved to Barmen. He attended the local school, where both
mathematics and Latin attracted him, one by the exactness of The Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism
its concepts, the other by its expressive but rational structure. The Vienna Circle was a group of like-minded philosophers
In 1909 the family moved to Jena, where Carnap entered the who sought to establish philosophy on solid logical foundations,
University. Physics and philosophy became his major fields, and in a way that would allow all its conclusions to be rigorously
the pattern of his intellectual life, and the problems it would verified. They called their approach ‘Logical Positivism’
bring him were beginning to take shape. At that time Gottlob although a more accurate name would be ‘Logical Empiricism’.
Frege (1848–1925), one of the greatest of all logicians, was an It offered the beguiling prospect of banishing all metaphysical
associate professor in Jena, and Carnap attended his lectures speculation; but this prospect vanished when its fundamental
on conceptual notation (Bergriffsschrift). He became fascinated principle of verifiability proved untenable.
by their intellectual implications, and the course of his philo- The Circle developed in the University of Vienna under lead-
sophical life was set. ership of Schlick, who had succeeded the great scientist and pos-
The outbreak of war in 1914 proved a traumatic experience. itivist philosopher Ernst Mach in 1922. Its guiding ideas had
Although viscerally opposed to war, Carnap accepted a duty to emerged from discussions starting around 1907 between the soci-
serve his fatherland, and volunteered to serve in the German ologist Otto Neurath, the physicist Philip Franck, and the math-
army. After three years in the front line he was transferred to ematician Hans Hahn. As it developed, the Circle attracted the

36 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Rudolf Carnap
Portrait by Darren McAndrew, 2017

participation of philosophers with a training in, or an attraction Positivism, Verification and Falsification
to, logic, mathematics, or science. The Circle sought to show Our knowledge can only be of three kinds:
that the various types of scientific activity had a common intel-
lectual structure, and argued that philosophy should be re-cast • Innate, deriving from our genetic inheritance (breathing, bal-
in this scientific form. In its early stages the Circle attracted the ancing, walking…);
attention and participation of many leading philosophers, includ- • Derived from our sensory experience; and
ing Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, A.J. Ayer and Alfred Tarski. • Derived from thought.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 37

Brief Lives
‘Empiricism’ is the attitude to knowledge that takes our sen- experience. The overwhelming impression he conveyed was one
sory experience as primary. Positivism is an extreme form of of great control and sustained momentum. One of his students
empiricism that admits only sensory experience as the source of compared him to a polite and friendly tank. He remained unfail-
knowledge. The name ‘positivism’ is due to Auguste Comte ingly courteous in the face of ferocious and in many cases ill-con-
(1798-1857), who believed that the empirical discoveries of sci- sidered attacks on his work. Few people have worked for decades
ence took total precedence over all theoretical rational con- on such hugely difficult topics; even fewer have had the ability to
structions. Logical positivism is positivism plus logic. carefully consider severe and sustained criticism while remaining
Carnap’s approach said that scientific knowledge uses a ‘Prin- gracious but unyielding.
ciple of Verification’, which demands that all theories be estab- Carnap’s socialist and pacifist beliefs put him in danger in an
lished by verified facts. Sir Karl Popper (1902–1994) took an increasingly pro-Nazi Austria. He emigrated to the United
opposing view concerning science. He thought that scientific States in 1935, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1941. The wis-
progress results from the exercise of imagination producing the- dom of this move was demonstrated by the appalling murder
ories which must then be tested against the facts, and if a pro- of Moritz Schlick on the entrance steps to the University of
posed theory withstands sustained criticism and fits all the observ- Vienna, in 1936.
able facts, then that’s sufficient to hold it as true until it might be From 1936-1952 Carnap was a Professor of Philosophy at
refuted by newly-discovered facts. He pointed out that Carnap’s the University of Chicago. Thanks to Willard Quine, he was
approach is unworkable, since no matter how often a theory is able to spend the years 1939-41 in Harvard, where he, Quine,
apparently ‘verified’ by observations, one reliable falsification is and Alfred Tarski worked together on the role of logic in phi-
sufficient to render the theory invalid. This ‘Principle of Falsifi- losophy. After a short spell at the Institute for Advanced Study
cation’, Popper boasted, destroyed Carnap’s approach. in Princeton, he joined the Philosophy department at UCLA,
Popper’s view of science, based on falsifiability rather than where he remained until retirement. Sadly, his wife ina com-
verifiability, is supported by many working scientists. mitted suicide in 1964.
Carnap became seriously ill suddenly in his late seventies.
Deduction, Induction and Probability He was rushed into hospital and died after a few days, on Sep-
Before Popper’s demolition of his Principle of Verification, Car- tember 14, 1970. The great depth of affection and respect in
nap had been a strong proponent of a frequency interpretation which he was held became apparent when the entire Volume 8
of probability in evaluating theories. He now realised that he of The Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science (1971) was devoted
would have to adopt a different approach. In his philosophical to assessments of and tributes to his work.
autobiography, The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap (1963), he
describes how Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas on probability con- Legacy
vinced him that he should seek a logical approach to the use of Carnap never abandoned his belief that science and philosophy
probability in theory evaluation. As a result he developed the should be founded on a bedrock of logic. He remained unmoved
approach described in his Logical Foundations of Probability (1950). in the face of ridicule by Karl Popper, who boasted that he had
Carnap had seen a way to put inductive reasoning (argument ‘killed’ Logical Positivism. He remained courteous when fero-
on the basis of observations) on the same absolutely logical basis ciously attacked by Nelson Goodman, who denounced his lack
as deductive reasoning (arguments of abstract reason) by creat- of recognition of humanistic values as ‘horrible’. His unshake-
ing a unified and objective account of inductive inference spec- able support of the primacy of both deductive and inductive
ified by clear rules of procedure. Carnap had grasped how to logic made his position an increasingly isolated philosophy dur-
create an objective approach by using the idea of a degree of veri- ing the latter part of the Twentieth Century.
fication. This enabled him to develop the inductive approach on Meanwhile, technology has moved on. Agency – the capac-
which he continued to work for the rest of his life. Deductive ity for autonomous behaviour – can be created in a mechanical
arguments are valid when their conclusions follow from their form by a combination of sensors, motors, and computing.
premises. Inductive arguments, however, are very different, Nowadays, for example, an unmanned aircraft can take off, travel
since they proceed from specific cases to general conclusions. for thousands of miles to a specified destination, and land
These general conclusions cannot be seen as obviously true or unaided. The agency of machines will steadily increase: think
false, but can only be seen as more or less probable given the of robots, unmanned vehicles, industrial processes… so Car-
available evidence. So inductive argument necessarily involves nap’s approach will become increasingly relevant, because highly
probabilistic reasoning. So Popper’s claim to demolish verifica- sophisticated machine agents will certainly act on a basis of
tion in science was premature: a rigid yes/no verification crite- logic. What better way could there be to characterise machine
rion can be relaxed into probabilities. Probabilistic argument is agency logic, than in the probabilistic manner that Carnap
now an indispensable part of science. worked so long and so hard to develop? A comprehensive expla-
nation of human agency may remain beyond our reach, but
Personality and Last Days Rudolf Carnap’s faith in logic as the basis of one form of agency
Carnap was logic personified. He was fabulously well-organised, will have been vindicated.
maintaining an extensive card file system in which was summarised © SIR ALISTAIR MACFARLANE 2017
every book, significant paper, and major article he had read. This Sir Alistair MacFarlane is a former Vice-President of the Royal
was combined with a prodigious ability to recall conversation and Society and a retired university Vice-Chancellor.

38 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

Anthony Grant Bartley
interviews the historian of
Western philosophy and
Gottlieb former Economist editor.

Hello Anthony. in the period. On the other hand, because and done such harm; and the apparent
I found your new I’m not writing primarily for academics, absence in his character of malice, self-
book The Dream of Enlightenment: The I’ve felt free to give much less than the regard, or any of the destructive
Rise of Modern Philosophy to be an usual amount of space to Bishop George passions. I also admire Hume for his
enjoyable and informative introduction to Berkeley, who for various reasons still genial, affectionate nature, his even
Enlightenment philosophy. Can you please looms large in university courses, but is temperament, and his preference for
tell us a little about its aims, the period it rather an oddball, even by the standards gentle persuasion rather than confronta-
covers, and what motivated you to write it? of philosophy. tion and bludgeoning.
It’s the second installment of a chrono-
logical history of Western philosophy. Do they have anything in common? Do you perceive a trajectory in thought as
The first ran from ancient philosophy to One thing the main characters in The the Enlightenment progresses?
the Renaissance, and this new volume Dream of Enlightenment have in common The radical and most creative work
covers philosophers from René is a desire to supplant traditional ideas done in the span covered by my book
Descartes and Thomas Hobbes in the inherited from ancient and medieval came early on, with Descartes, Hobbes
Seventeenth Century to just before thinkers and to explore the implications and Spinoza, in the first three-quarters
Immanuel Kant, whose main work was of Galileo’s ‘new philosophy’, as they of the Seventeenth Century. This is the
published in the late Eighteenth called it – we call it the ‘Scientific Revo- period of the so-called ‘pre-Enlighten-
Century. A third volume will run from lution’. One outlier who doesn’t quite fit ment’ or ‘early Enlightenment’. I think
Kant to the present day. The overall aim this pattern is Gottfried Leibniz, who that a lot of what came afterwards, in
of the project is to engage readers with aimed to find compromises between the the Eighteenth Century, was a matter of
some of the main ideas and arguments of old and the new, even while he himself digesting, assimilating, and coming to
Western philosophy in a way that played a big role in advancing the new. terms with these early ideas.
requires no prior acquaintance with it. I
began this enterprise when I was science Which thinker’s philosophy do you particu- What do these thinkers have to say to us
editor of The Economist. My hope was to larly agree with or relate to? today?
do for philosophy what we tried to do in I usually found much to appreciate in If one were to try and identify the core
the magazine for science – that is, to the perspectives and achievements of values of the thinkers in my book, some
explain it in a way that was accessible, yet each one of my subjects, even though of the things that spring to mind are the
also rigorously accurate. there was plenty of passionate disagree- questioning of intellectual authority –
ment between them. Like many of and particularly the dictates of religious
What criteria did you use to choose which today’s professional philosophers, establishments – and a keen sense of the
philosophers you would discuss? though, I am particularly keen on David weakness of the human mind. I’d say
To some extent the agenda was set by Hume. If I had to pick a favourite, it that these values are needed as much
tradition, because I wanted to provide a would be him. This is largely because I today as they have ever been.
deeper understanding of ideas that were share not only many of his attitudes – his
already in wide circulation. Many people naturalism and agnosticism, for instance What did you personally learn when writing
have heard a bit about Descartes and – but also many of his philosophical this book?
Hobbes, for example. My aim is to tell interests – in the limits of scepticism, I came to have a much greater apprecia-
them more about the classic works they’ll and in the nature of causation and prob- tion of Thomas Hobbes, whose work is
see alluded to in works of history or popu- abilistic reasoning, for example. more wide-ranging than popular
lar science. But I’ve also introduced some accounts suggest, and more sympathy for
less familiar figures, whose work either Which of these men do you particularly Leibniz, who I think was rather traduced
played a significant role in the develop- admire as a human being? in Bertrand Russell’s influential History of
ment of philosophy or is of particular Bertrand Russell famously wrote that Western Philosophy. One general lesson I
interest to me – histories of philosophy Baruch Spinoza was “the noblest and hope I learned is a keener appreciation
are always idiosyncratic to some degree. most lovable of the great philosophers.” of the importance of context when inter-
Thus in the new book I have a short I fell under Spinoza’s spell, too, as many preting the thought of early-modern
chapter on Pierre Bayle, who was widely do. There’s the humble simplicity, self- philosophers. PN

read in the early Eighteenth Century – lessness and dedication of his life; the
and rightly so, in my opinion – but is brave originality of his take on religion, Grant Bartley is an Editor of Philosophy
almost forgotten now, even by specialists which he thought had led many astray Now.

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 39

When inspiration strikes, don’t bottle it up!
Write to me at: Philosophy Now
43a Jerningham Road • London • SE14 5NQ • U.K.
or email
Keep them short and keep them coming!

The Views On Nowhere anybody to start supposing that, as the Later on, however, his discussion reverts
DEAR EDITOR: I don’t often write to idea of ‘spirit’ goes out of fashion, the to a more traditional use of the word
you, but Nick Inman’s lively article conscious self has ceased to exist and ‘me’ when he reports the commonly-
‘Nowhere Men’ (Issue117) just hit the become an illusion. (Who, by the way, is held view that “half of me does not
point which was then bothering me, supposed to be having that illusion? Isn’t exist” – implying that he’s now referring
namely: Why are some philosophical illusion, like measles or a bad temper, to himself as a whole entity, of which
superstitions apparently incurable? Why something which must be had by a sub- only half is the person in question.
for instance can’t today’s materialists ject – a particular person?) There is still However, Inman is consistent in his
(now of course duly called ‘physicalists’) less excuse for saying that when we talk assertion that subjective experience is
get over their mind-matter dualism? If about this familiar self, nature – or the only possible via immaterial activity.
the idea of mind makes them so uneasy, brain, which is now the more frequently That we experience mental processes
why can’t they see that the idea of mat- chosen quasi-agent – is ‘pulling a confi- seems all the proof he needs that there’s
ter is every bit as awkward? Since the dence-trick’. Trying to pretend that one something apart from matter at work in
two were designed to fit each other, they is not a subject – that one has no inner the human person. This unjustifiably
have, in fact, both got to be rethought. self – is just thought-free nonsense. And dismisses the complexity that material
Dualism was devised in the Sixteenth when Inman reports that “many of our processes are capable of, in favor of the
Century as a way of keeping modern greatest contemporary thinkers” are now preferred explanation that human beings
physics out of the way of traditional doing this, he is in fact reporting the transcend physics. This belief is never
Christianity. Since Christianity and ideas of a set of simple-minded dogmatic convincingly proven, just repeated.
physics were then the only two intellec- materialists, skilfully disguised as sages. EUGENE FRANKLIN, USA
tual patterns available for highbrows in MARY MIDGLEY
Europe, confusion between them could NEWCASTLE Metaphysical Foundations
have had bad social, and indeed political, DEAR EDITOR: Issue 117 has been
effects. The old names of ‘spirit’ and DEAR EDITOR: One difficulty I come another fascinating read. The list of
‘matter’ were therefore adopted for this across in Nick Inman’s ‘Nowhere Men’ metaphysicians discussed suggests that
new confrontation, and were supposed to piece is the inconsistent use of language. the answer to your front-cover question
allow the two sides to fit together. When he asks “Am I me?” and “Do “Is metaphysics out of date?” is: “Yes it
Unluckily, however, this arrangement I…exist?” it becomes clear that by ‘I’ is; it is stuck in a time when nobody
was then treated as if it involved a form of and ‘me’, he doesn’t mean what we nor- knew or cared about the metaphysics of
chemistry that linked two distinct sub- mally mean. When we use the word Buddhism, Taoism etc.” Berkeley,
stances, stuffs that must not be mixed, ‘car’ to refer to a four-wheeled transport Spinoza, Epicurus are all very well, but
chalk or cheese. Everything, it seemed, machine, we’re using it as a conve- they did not solve the problem of real-
must be made entirely either of matter or nience. One could say that there really is ity. Surely it is time to move on.
spirit. Thus, the fact that the same person no such thing as a car. What there is is a However, I would like to thank Peter
could have both a body and a soul [or collection of parts: a frame, an engine, a Adamson for his excellent and useful
mind] has been seen – and is still seen – as transmission, et cetera; and even these article on metaphysics, which seemed to
posing a specially ‘hard problem’, because components are made up of smaller me to contain more good sense than
these items have been deemed incompati- pieces. For convenience, we sum it up many whole books on the topic. He
ble, even though that same person’s hav- into a collective thing and label it a ‘car’. proposes that metaphysics is the most
ing (say) both a profession and a national- Pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘me’ do the general and fundamental part of philos-
ity, both a destiny and also a reputation, same thing; they allow us to take a ophy. While this should not need say-
has caused no more alarm than their hav- whole creature into account without ing, somehow it does. There is nothing
ing both a size and a weight. tediously naming the biological compo- more depressing than seeing philoso-
People still do not seem to understand nents. When using such a holistic term phers theorising prior to establishing
that the language of body and soul, mat- as ‘I’, there’s no point questioning any metaphysical foundation. It’s like a
ter and spirit – outer and inner – does not whether, say, I exist, because if I didn’t, house-builder working on the roof
invoke separate substances but merely there’d be no one to ask the question. before the footings. The result is bound
draws attention to distinct aspects of a But Inman’s not asking about a whole to be about the same.
complex whole. The unit is always the person. He’s restricting ‘I’ and ‘me’ to PETER JONES
whole person. There is thus no need for an immaterial personal identity here. HOLMFIRTH

40 Philosophy Now l February/March 2017

Political Foundations part of my lessons, many of my students Hammurabi or the Ten Commandments.
DEAR EDITOR: I love the philosophy of bring it to me. After learning about it in Here right and wrong actions are written
politics and its central question, ‘What is either their law or political science clearly for all to see. Under these condi-
the ideal state?’ When I’m waxing philo- classes, most students are eager to hear tions – for example under the Ten Com-
sophic, I think Aristotle’s ideas sound the what the philosophy teacher has to say. mandments – to kill is unjustifiable, either
way we always want to live our lives. In One of the key concepts I try to instil once or five times. The limitation of this
Issue 116, I especially liked Matt in my philosophy students is a critical type of morality is that it does not
Qvortrup’s quote of section 1281b of analysis of questions. There is a question account for the no-win scenario in which
Aristotle’s The Politics, about why people or motivation behind every question, we find ourselves. Nor does it easily
participating in an enterprise as a group and understanding this subtlety is the allow change with the ebb and flow of
may reach a better level of achievement key to finding, and giving, better the zeitgeist of evolving society.
than any individuals can manage alone. answers. So what is the true question, or The second form is a ‘Democratic
In more modern times, such commu- intent, of the Trolley Problem? Morality’, in which behaviour is agreed
nal action was tremendously suspected, In each trolley scenario, the person upon (cf ‘Reality television’, in which sit-
especially by those who wrote the United faced with the dilemma will often begin uations of questionable moral behaviour
States’ Constitution. Such ‘group work’ by attempting to find ways to solve the are justified through ratings: ‘If millions
was called highly suspect by James Madi- problem without anyone getting hurt – of people watch it, it must be morally
son in his Federalist Paper #10, which for instance, by calling ahead to warn the acceptable’). Although this sort of moral-
focused mostly on a concern about self- workers of the oncoming danger, or ity evolves with the times, it also has lim-
interested groups which have diverged putting rocks on the rails in order to run itations since it is so open to interpreta-
from the higher egalitarian principles the trolley off the track. The person tion, and in some cases erosion: the ‘will
that Aristotle had in mind. proposing the dilemma must then alter of the people’ can too easily undermine
I understand the worries Madison and the story, incorporating more and more what is morally unacceptable in order to
others of his time had, but I agree with detail in order to negate each solution. gratify current needs or desires. Under
Aristotle. It is that ‘dream’ egalitarianism Hence the Trolley Problem constantly these conditions, choosing between the
that drives probably all democratic gov- evolves into more and more complex deaths of one or five people becomes a
ernments, the desire to provide for our- renderings. However, as noted in the justifiable moral act if we all agree it’s
selves almost better than can the gods, article, any answer that does not involve the ‘right call’. So the real question
that keeps at least democracies waving someone’s death “would be to miss the behind the Trolley Problem is not one
the flags that say democracy is the best point.” The subject facing the dilemma is of solving a dilemma of morality, but a
way to be governed! I also think that ‘locked-in’ to choosing between one or desperate plea by the questioner to have
Madison’s and the other Founding five deaths, for which they will be ulti- the decision they already made justified
Fathers’ idea about a representative mately responsible. through the authority of numbers. This
democracy that becomes its own watch- Anyone who proposes the Trolley only works if the questioner can force
dog over factions, that an ounce of pre- Problem has at some time had the prob- the person questioned to make the fatal
vention is worth a pound of cure, was a lem proposed to them. Having already decision. This is why they must con-
very modern one, and a good one at that. been through the thought experiment, stantly amend the problem to rule out
Their thinking has been another part they have already chosen their own solu- any scenario in which lives may be
of what is the ideal state. But if I could tion, whether they would be responsible spared. Therefore the dilemma of the
just have one election in my life based on for the deaths of one or five people. They Trolley Problem becomes a psychologi-
a plain old-fashioned, well-healed, happy, have also experienced the guilt that comes cal quest to compel the person answering
‘everyone-voting-for-the-same-good’ along with the decision they would make, the question into supporting the ques-
kind of America, I’d take that in an Aris- even if it is just pretend. So on analysis, tioner’s position. Ultimately, no answer
totelian heartbeat! the Trolley Problem is not so much a to the Trolley Problem is adequate short
Thanks for the article Matt. It was a moral dilemma as a psychological one. of “It’s okay, I would have made the
nice read. After experiencing the Trolley Problem same decision.”
CORINE SUTHERLAND and failing to overcome the ‘no-win sce- GEOFFREY WHITMAN
LOMITA, CALIFORNIA nario’, ultimately culminating in their ONTARIO, CANADA
being forced to choose between the death
The Real Trolley Problem of one or five people, the questioner Conspicuous Benevolence
DEAR EDITOR: I recently read Issue 116 rushes to pass the dilemma on to someone DEAR EDITOR: Seán Moran’s article
and I’m prompted to write in response else in the hopes that their decision will be ‘Bilateral Benevolence’ in Issue 116
to ‘Could There Be A Solution To The justified. The questioner has a need to jus- prompted me to think about what I do to
Trolley Problem?’ by Omid Panahi. As a tify their choice, thereby alleviating their practice goodwill toward others. I agree
high school philosophy teacher, I have guilt. The natural way to do this is by with Immanuel Kant’s conclusions on
long known of this argument and its seeking others who agree with you. what is true benevolence, and don’t
variations, as well as other, similar, ‘no- From this analysis we can see the expect anything in return simply because
win scenarios’. It is a thought experiment divergence of two forms of morality. I act towards others the way I would like
that often fascinates teenagers. Though I The first, we could call ‘Constitutional to be treated. If it makes me feel good,
never include the Trolley Problem as Morality’. Examples are the Code of that’s enough. What does it cost me to

February/March 2017 l Philosophy Now 41

be kind to another person? Nothing. I ‘I am hungry’. Also, alien science and language was recognized.) Freedom is the
especially try to be respectful to those technology, being based on the invariable “universal, absolute end.” (Part II) This is
providing a service for me; to understand laws of mathematics, physics and chem- also Aristotelian, in that according to
that if curt, perhaps they are having a istry, will be somewhat communicable. Aristotle the goal or end of being human
bad day. It’s not my place to pass judge- So our first meaningful communication is to do well what human beings uniquely
ment. More often than not I give them a may be “Swap you three tons of food for do. And for de Beauvoir, what human
break; unless of course they are com- the plans of your warp drive.” beings uniquely do is to exercise their
pletely out-of-line. The world is harsh MARTIN JENKINS freedom. A project that exercises one’s
enough, being nice to people is the least LONDON freedom is therefore inherently justified.
one can do. Why not pay it forward? But we cannot pursue our projects
But ‘conspicuous donation’ goes Camus Is an Existentialist alone. De Beauvoir’s contribution to
against what I believe to be true benevo- & De Beauvoir is an Aristotelian existentialist ethics, as Steinbauer notes,
lence. There are those instances when a DEAR EDITOR: I am writing with refer- is to recognize that our freedom is
family or an individual gives an entire ence to Greg Stone’s piece ‘Why Camus achievable only in relation to others. We
wing to a hospital and their name is on is Not an Existentialist’ (PN 115). Con- can be grateful for her insight – which,
the building. If I had such funds, I would sidering that this issue holds many theo- arguably, is also Aristotelian – that “we
consider making such magnanimous ges- retical nuances and interpretations, his fulfill ourselves in taking the other as an
tures, but I wouldn’t want my name on piece lacks a certain depth. Stone’s evi- end” (Part III, section 5). Steinbauer
the building. The underlying agenda of dence is mainly based on the personal says, correctly, that The Ethics of Ambigu-
those who participate in conspicuous and political differences of the two ity is too rich to be covered adequately in
benevolence is to elevate their position authors. Stone’s conclusion is also a short essay. In her brevity, she omits an
in the community. demeaning of Camus’s theoretical work, important aspect of de Beauvoir’s views:
CHERYL ANDERSON and he failed to look into other works by the political. The paradigmatic case of
ILLINOIS Camus such as The Rebel. I would like to an authentic project is the struggle for
add that Sartre’s notion of complete liberation, politically, socially and eco-
A Possibility of Understanding freedom was heavily criticised, and that nomically: “the oppressed,” says de
DEAR EDITOR: In Issue 116 Malcolm in his essay ‘Existentialism is a Human- Beauvoir, “can fulfill his freedom as a
Brown and Steve Hubbard make some ism’ Sartre attempts to rectify this theo- man only in revolt” (Part III, section 2).
interesting points about communicating retical mishap by introducing the notion Readers interested in discussion of this
with extra-terrestrials; but some of their of responsibility towards others: “In aspect of de Beauvoir’s work are invited
assumptions seem doubtful. fashioning myself I fashion man.” This to read my short essay, ‘Simone de Beau-
The argument that we cannot know same essay also attempts to counter the voir: A Philosophy of Liberation’ at
‘what it is like to be a bat’ founders on the notion of existential despair that Stone
problem that, in a sense, a bat does not highlights. Sartre’s aim is to show that BILL MEACHAM
know what it is like to be a bat; nor do existentialism is a means of liberation as AUSTIN, TX
humans know what it is like to be human, opposed to a plunge into despair; a simi-
at least in the sense of being able to lar kind of liberation that is to be found DEAR EDITOR: I am a first-time reader
explain what being human is like. If one in Camus’s absurd hero. of Philosophy Now. As a casual student of
human asks another, ‘What does it feel FRANCOIS ZAMMIT the existentialist movement, I was drawn
like to be human?’ the answer is likely to MALTA to Issue 115. I enjoyed the synopsis of
be meaningless. ‘What it is like’ can only every writer in the magazine, but found
be explained if there is a point of compari- DEAR EDITOR: Thanks for Anja Stein- myself frustrated by a want I find in
son – i.e. if two species can share their bauer’s essay on ‘Simone’s Existentialist most existentialist commentaries: that
experiences and understand their own in Ethics’ in Issue 115. De Beauvoir’s The more foundational to each writer than
terms of difference from the other’s. Ethics of Ambiguity is an underappreci- freedom or angst is their common
Large brains do not necessarily imply ated work. Readers may be interested to engagement with nihilism and going
a philosophising intelligence. Dolphins learn that it is freely available online. beyond it. Kierkegaard and Camus, the
may use their brains to ensure that they De Beauvoir is certainly an existential- two with whom I’m most familiar, pro-
can track down the best supply of fish, ist, but in some ways she is also an Aris- vide the ideal examples. Kierkegaard
but they may be content to do so without totelian: she rejects any notion of an abso- acknowledged the limits of our ability to
worrying about the meaning of life. It is lute goodness or moral imperative that know and the underlying meaningless-
curious that the authors do not refer to exists on its own, and says that a person’s ness to all we do. However, his goal was
humans’ most serious attempt at inter- values spring up as a result of having cho- to posit a philosophy through which we
species communication, namely, teach- sen a project. But what justifies the pro- can acknowledge the meaninglessness of
ing other primates sign language. ject? There is one goal that comes with the world and still live our lives. He sug-
To qualify as life, aliens must share being human, she says, the exercise of gested his leap of faith. Similarly, Camus
basic needs and drives with humans, for freedom itself: “human freedom is the summarizes the human condition in his
example, the need for nourishment or the ultimate, the unique end to which man absurdist philosophy. Like Kierkegaard,
urge to reproduce. Even a pet dog can should destine himself.” (Ironically, she though, from the beginning of The Myth
communicate, inter-species, the concept wrote before the value of gender-inclusive of Sisyphus Camus tells the reader that he

42 Philosophy Now l February/March 2017

is looking for a philosophy that can take Notice that each statement provides mutually exclusive. Is that true? No.
the individual beyond the apathetic or an explanation composed of facts. But Peter is very clever and got A grades for
suicidal conclusions of nihilism. Life is now imagine that we go a step beyond all his past examinations. His friend,
meaningless, he acknowledges, but we the last witness’s answer to make an ulti- David asks him, ‘Can you get an A grade
still have inclinations, passions, and rela- mate assertion by saying, ‘Love is ulti- for the examination tomorrow?’ Peter
tionships, so he tells us to live. mately more powerful than anger and replies, ‘I can and I cannot.’ David asks,
So for the rest of the existentialists. fear.’ Such an assertion goes beyond our ‘What do you mean?’ and Peter answers,
Nietzsche recommended a life of aesthet- direct knowledge of the facts; for how ‘If I study tonight, I can get an A grade
ics and art. As Anja Steinbauer writes in could I know about all situations, past and tomorrow. If I don’t study tonight, I
her article, Simone de Beauvoir laid out present, measure the amount of love in cannot get an A grade tomorrow.’ The
an existentialist ethics. And Sartre each, and know about their ultimate out- same argument can be applied to the
begrudgingly acknowledged our con- comes? But we might recognize such an paradox of the stone. God can willfully
demnation to freedom. Doing nothing or ultimate assertion as being the kind that choose whether he is ‘able to lift the
suicide is just as much a choice as living. religious believers sometimes make in stone’ or ‘unable to lift the stone’. These
Thus, the best definition of existen- talking about God as the Ultimate. In two situations can therefore co-exist, and
tialism is not a focus on freedom, indi- doing so, believers are not just explaining need not be mutually exclusive.
vidualism, and angst, but rather a move- facts, but are also expressing a value judg- I do not have any religious faith, but I
ment that sought to acknowledge ment about what they consider to be the hope these arguments can help in resolv-
nihilism and then take a logical step highest value. Such a value-statement lies ing omnipotence paradoxes.
beyond it into action. even further beyond the reach of Ock- ERNEST L.Y. FUNG
DANIEL BUCK ham’s razor than the explanations of facts HONG KONG
GREEN BAY, WI that Glass and McCartney deal with.
BRUCE YAEGER All Hail the Haiku
Lifting Logic Beyond the Mundane HOUSTON, TX DEAR EDITOR: Congratulations on intro-
DEAR EDITOR: David Glass and Mark ducing the haiku column! As a daily
McCartney in Issue 115 skillfully slice DEAR EDITOR: In the article ‘Science, haikuist, I commend the exercise for
away the New Atheists’ claim that Ock- Ockham’s Razor & God’ in Issue 115, the reflections on the sublime and the ridicu-
ham’s Razor makes any statements about authors have attempted to show why using lous. The syllabic restriction imposes a
God pointless once a scientific explana- science and Ockham’s Razor to explain discipline that can help get to the heart of
tion has been given. However, Glass and God away is very unlikely to be successful. an issue (although, more often than not,
McCartney’s analysis treats God-talk as Lately I have also come up with some new the trite, pretentious or the vacuous
being primarily an attempt to explain ideas about omnipotence paradoxes to emerge). Possibly it’s worth inviting the
facts about the world, but the God-talk support their argument. The most well- readership to contribute, so that you can
of religious believers, while able to known omnipotence paradox is the so- dot them through the text. [Feel free to
encompass facts, includes a valuing called ‘Paradox of the Stone’: Can God submit philosophical haiku to us, Ed.] As
dimension that goes beyond the limita- create a stone that he cannot lift? If God someone whose initial degree was in
tions of science. cannot create such a stone, he is not Physics (or ‘Natural Philosophy’ as Glas-
An example used by the theologian omnipotent. If God can create such a gow University styled it in those distant
John F. Haught can demonstrate how stone, he is also not omnipotent, because days) I was also delighted with the recent
religious statements operate at a deeper he cannot lift it. So no matter whether an science and philosophy theme (Issue 114).
level than just explaining facts. Imagine omnipotent God can or cannot create In my retirement I took up writing poetry
that several people have witnessed a car such a stone, he is not omnipotent. Many to tackle the aversion to it I developed at
going down a street. Even in explaining people use this paradox to argue that the about sixteen when the world’s most bor-
what happened, each witness can give a concept of omnipotence is incoherent. But ing teacher spent a term on Paradise Lost
quite different answer to the question, I have thought of some arguments to and The Deserted Village. So, here is an
‘Why was the car with Bill in it going refute this paradox. John asks God, ‘Can offering which deals with all that:
down the road?’ Such answers include: you create a stone that you cannot lift?’ I was Schrödinger’s cat’s muse
• Because the spark plugs were igniting and God answers, ‘I can lift a stone with an that summer
the gasoline-air mixture, thus forcing the infinite weight. So logically there cannot when I might have been
pistons in the internal combustion be any stones in the world that I cannot John Cage perhaps.
engine to move, turning the drive-shaft. lift.’ The paradox is like asking someone I posted a blank card
• Because Bill was driving to the drug who can lift any stones under 10 kg to cre- with no message, no stamp
store to get some medicine for his mother. ate a stone with a weight under 10 kg that unaddressed, unsigned
• Because Bill cared about his mother, he cannot lift. The response is the such a or maybe not.
even though he had been angry with her stone logically cannot exist. So the paradox Sorting it
in the past, and even though he was of the stone becomes meaningless. will be a matter
frightened by her being so ill; but he The paradox can also be refuted from of life or death.
didn’t want her to die. another perspective. Most people may
• Because love is so powerful it can believe that ‘being able to lift the stone’ ALASDAIR MACDONALD
sometimes cast out anger and fear. and ‘being unable to lift the stone’ are GLASGOW

February/March 2017 l Philosophy Now 43

Daryn Green looks, listens, and thinks about the art and

Books philosophy of David Bowie, whilst Alan Brody thinks

about freedom and responsibility with Lars Svendsen.

On Bowie ble and reflexive art form. With Bowie, as styles through a process of “inhabitation,
by Simon Critchley with Andy Warhol, there is the sense that imitation, perfection and destruction”
literally anything is potentially useable for (Critchley likens this to Gustav Metzger’s
WHEN I STARTED MY the artist, and that any censorship is to be on idea of auto-destructive art). Critchley
Philosophy degree in the artist’s own terms. But the question explores how all these strategies relate to the
1983, if someone asked me remains: how did Bowie, more than any media-dominated speed, unreality, contin-
what music I liked, my other rock star (in both my and Critchley’s gency, even absurdity, of life today and to
proselytizing reply was “Bowie, Bowie, and view), and with commercial success, manage the transience of experience.
Bowie!” Over the years little has changed. to so consistently transcend the mundane? Critchley also writes at length about
From this the reader may discern that I have Critchley talks about Bowie’s repeated Bowie’s strong interest in religious ideas.
a certain amount in common with the use of Warhol’s aesthetic – the sense of an Whilst Bowie had very strong spiritual lean-
philosopher and Bowie fan Simon Critch- ironic self-awareness for both artist and ings, he was deeply critical of organised reli-
ley, author of On Bowie, a short, personal and audience, born of repeated inauthenticity, gion, perhaps of Christianity most of all. It
penetrating book on this pre-eminent artist that is facilitated using obvious fictions and is perhaps not surprising that he had a life-
and song-writing phenomenon. David characters, the use of fictions within fictions, long interest in Buddhism. Critchley notes
Bowie – born David Jones – sadly died a year and the exposure of artifice. Bowie’s lyrics how often the word ‘nothing’ appears in
ago, aged 69, still at the very top of his game. often display his sense of being inside his Bowie’s lyrics;. This tends not to involve the
In twenty-five concise essays Critchley takes own movie, or reveal himself as the writer. usual meaning (complete negation) but to
us on a journey from his own reaction to first Critchley also covers Bowie’s conversion, via lean more towards a “restless nothing shaped
seeing Bowie on TV in 1972 to his reaction William Burroughs, to Brion Gysin’s cut-up by... our fearful sickness unto death” or
to Bowie’s death. During this journey he’s technique – literally the cutting up and rear- something like the Buddhist notion of a self-
essentially asking, what is it about this artist, ranging of passages of text to create lyrics or less meditative state on the path to enlight-
his personas, and his work, that manages to musical ideas. Bowie was terrifically success- enment, which within Bowie became
have such a hold over so many? Of course, ful with this technique. “mobile and massively creative.”
quite early on there was the gender-bend- But Bowie’s ability to excel didn’t just The brevity of this book belies its scope.
ing, the outlandish appearance, the youth- stem from applying art theories and tech- Critchley covers various of Bowie’s themes:
antheming; but there must be more to it than niques. One of Bowie’s many tools Critch- mortality, transformation, transcendence,
that. And Critchley, as a philosopher, is well ley identifies is his use of notions of personal humour, utopias, dystopias, madness, alien-
placed to probe this further. identity. Most people, and most song lyrics, ation, Nietzschean sensibility, imaginary
assume that identity has a natural narrative pasts and futures, Hamletesque characters
Philosophy & Art unity. Bowie played with ideas that are more and reflections, fear of isolation, yearning
Bowie evidently had some sort of relation- sophisticated and liberating and, claims for love or connection. He talks of how
ship with philosophy, which fed strongly Critchley, more in line with his own view of Bowie permits a “deworlding of the world”
into his craft. I’m not saying that Bowie was identity being “at best a sequence of episodic where we acknowledge disconnections in
a philosopher in the conventional sense, blips.” This is said in connection with David order to see things afresh.
only that he had a certain depth and breadth, Hume’s idea of the self as being a discon- The highlight of the book for me was the
and a visceral reaction to the broader philo- nected bundle of perceptions, and with a notion that “authenticity is the curse of
sophical landscape. This included aspects of belief, such as Simone Weil’s, in “decreative music from which we need to cure
aesthetics, of course, but also involved writing that moves through spirals of ever- ourselves.” I think Critchley’s really on to
exploring contemporary issues of the human ascending negations before reaching ... something here, at least as far as popular
condition and the blasted terrain of modern nothing.” music is concerned. Although he writes in a
spirituality. non-technical manner, I think he’s driving
Bowie also maintained a lifelong interest Disconnection & Exploration at ideas of cultural authenticity from exis-
in the visual arts. Clearly he saw himself Once these major influences, tools, and tentialism and aesthetics, as relating to
more as an artist in the theatrical or fine-art objectives are looked at together, one starts notions of street credibility and of authen-
mould than as a conventional rock star. In to see some obvious marriages between ticity of expression – of an artist being faith-
comparison to the visual arts, most popular them, especially (as Critchley notes) that the ful to himself by portraying situations or
music tends to be terribly constrained. But Gysin cut-up technique and Warholian emotions realistically. There is much good
for anyone with a foot in both camps it must irony blend perfectly with Bowie’s oblique music that does comply with these notions
seem perfectly natural to try and get some of strategies in tackling notions of fragmented of authenticity. However, by allowing
the freedom of the former into the latter; in identity and fragmented lives. Bowie himself a “variety of identities” placed in a
other words, to turn pop music into a flexi- famously had a tendency to quickly change “confection of illusion… at the service of a

44 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017 Book Reviews

determined way of surviving at the top; and
also how his “music is felt in the… muscu-
lature of the body” – which hints at Bowie’s
tremendous skill with mood, timbre, and
rhythm. But I would have taken the analysis
of his art a little further. In my view Bowie
was not just different; he was also often, and
in so many ways, conventionally good; or I
might say, conventionally better. His attitude
to researching a theme; or his ability to
collaborate effectively; or the quality of the
acting in his singing; or his ability, lyrically
and musically, to form structures at once so
sophisticated and yet so accessible – none of
these are unconventional attributes as such.
It was therefore a killer combination of
convention and idiosyncracy that made
Bowie the Exocet missile of his profession.

Omnidirectional Bombardment
So how did Bowie manage to so consistently
transcend the mundane? Critchley answers
this question in a cumulative, integrated and
sophisticated way, but the answer is also
worth stating more bluntly. In essence, and
quite at variance with the notion of laid-back
cool so often adopted by artists, and often by
Bowie himself, he excelled through a canny
combination of raw talent, wild imagination,
cross-fertilisation, wise collaboration, fero-
cious ambition, enthusiasm, dedication, art
theory and techniques, open-ended curios-
ity, restless experimentalism, artistic fear-
lessness, unsentimental productivity, global
art and culture, philosophy and spirituality,
esotericism, science fiction, future nostalgia,
and more besides. Bowie basically chucked
everything but the kitchen sink at his art!
Under this omnidirectional bombardment,
mundanity was all but buried.
I would recommend this book to all
David Bowie Bowie fans with intellectual leanings who
portrait by seek a deeper understanding of how Bowie
Gail Campbell managed to weave his magic, for Critchley
2017 here has done much of the spade-work anal-
ysis that people like me always meant to do
but somehow never quite got round to. It’s
felt... truth” Bowie managed to produce art this sense Bowie’s art could be seen as a rarer, short, readable and a worthy take on a great
that responds not just to who and where we more sophisticated form of authenticity, artist who by comparison with other musi-
are, but also, and especially, to our yearnings which shows the simpler form of mundane, cians was both fascinatingly different and
for imaginary, sociological, and theatrical factual authenticity to be merely an artistic often the same but better – and thus overall
exploration. These yearnings are for limitation. To paraphrase Critchley, a true much, much better.
personal reinvention that can save us from artist requires sufficient elbow room to work © DARYN GREEN 2017
suburban boredom – or even “save us from their material, so as to produce a more inter- Daryn Green is a carer, and also works as a
ourselves, from the banal fact of being in the esting level of authenticity – as Bowie supply teacher in North London.
world.” In any case, for many of us, such himself repeatedly demonstrated.
yearnings are just as much a part of who we I was glad that Critchley also covered • On Bowie, by Simon Critchley, Serpent’s Tail,
are as the more mundane facts about us. In Bowie’s extraordinary artistic discipline – his 2016, £6.99, 192pp, ISBN: 1781257450.

Book Reviews February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 45

Freedom & Determinism choice might be undermined by a patho-
A Philosophy of Freedom
Svendsen asks how free choice can exist if logical condition (p.68). But Walter is
by Lars Svendsen
we understand the universe merely in charged with failing to manage his patho-
terms of physical causes. If a choice results logical condition by not accessing a doctor
FOLLOWING AN OPERATION from causes powerful enough to bring when that was possible for him. Should he
to remove part of his about only one result, viz, the choice that be judged as culpable?
temporal lobe, and further temporal lobe occurred, this means that the so-called We might think that his shame was
surgery to control seizures, Walter B. ‘choice’ is determined. For Svendsen this more than he could manage, even to the
developed numerous compulsive behaviors means that given that particular set of prior extent of not allowing him to consult a doc-
incompatible with how he had preferred to causes, one could not have done otherwise. tor, and that the shame is part of his having
behave. A ravenous appetite and long rages Few people would hold an individual become mentally ill because of the brain
became the norm. Both starting and morally or legally responsible if his psy- surgery. Having a severe mental illness
stopping activities became difficult. chotic personality and actions were caused causing bizarre delusions might mean that a
Sometimes he was easily distracted, and by a large brain tumor that prevented him person becomes like a child, lacking ade-
sometimes he got stuck in a simple activity from thinking and acting otherwise (p.50). quate capability for understanding the
for eight or nine hours. Deeply ashamed, In a similar way, Svensen argues, a deter- world, and so “falls below the limits for
he kept some of his behaviors secret – until ministic universe where we couldn’t have minimal autonomy” (p.87). However, if
they led to his arrest for violating the law. done other than what we did thereby someone is a drug user, or mentally ill, but
He felt relieved to no longer keep them apparently eliminates moral responsibility, while in a ‘normal’, lucid state, uses drugs
secret, and now reached out to his doctor and so, guilt. In other words, for us to be or chooses to avoid their needed medica-
for medication that would allow him to moral agents as traditionally understood, tion, thereby undermining their capacity to
stop his compulsive actions, and he conse- we must apparently believe in some indeter- act responsibly, and subsequently causes
quently returned to his old loving, com- ministic variety of choice, where we have a harm to another, that person is still respon-
passionate self. However, Walter still faced real ability to choose in one or another sible for those actions resulting from their
prosecution for the unlawful behavior. way. In a deterministic universe, an alterna- choice while in the lucid state (p.74).
During the trial, his neurologists tive reason for acting could have come up Svendsen tells us that he had a bad tem-
explained that Walter had Klüver-Bucy only if there had been different conditions per until he no longer wished to be like
syndrome – a neurological condition that up to the moment of choice. But according that, and changed that character trait after
manifested itself in those unlawful acts. to indeterminism, when exercising our he began to work on himself (p.83). Since,
The prosecution claimed in response that choice, we might have chosen differently like him, people can reflect on their behav-
since Walter did not engage in illegal even under those same conditions. With ior, know what they are doing, think of bet-
activity at work, he therefore had some indeterminism we are not completely ter alternatives, and change not only what
control over his condition, and during restricted to what we actually chose to they were doing, but their character, then
such a period of self-control could have think or do by external factors – by neuro- arguably Walter should similarily have
asked his doctors for help in stopping his logical damage, for instance. worked on himself by getting the appropri-
compulsive behaviors. Judged as culpable Svendsen is an indeterminist. Given ate help. And it appears that Walter’s exer-
for failing to do that, Walter was sen- indeterminism, a free agent has the “ability cise of self-control at work constituted a
tenced to prison for twenty-six months, to make a free choice executing and con- ‘normal’ period, during which he did have
subsequent home confinement for twenty- trolling actions based on reasons” (p.77). the ability to ask for help.
five months, and five years of supervision And even though one does not choose one’s
after that. Such is the case of Walter B., as reasons from a psychological blank slate, Autonomy, Rights & Politics
reported by Oliver Sacks in his essay one’s reasons for acting nevertheless explain Being free to follow what we care about is
‘Urge’ in the New York Review of Books of one’s behavior, and therefore allow moral a significant part of what makes life mean-
September 24, 2015. responsibility for it. That is to say, an ingful (Ch.13); and that’s why freedom of
In A Philosophy of Freedom, Lars autonomous agent is responsible for their choice is “a good of higher order than
Svendsen, a professor in the Department ongoing choices, character, and actions, most of the other goods” (p.97).
of Philosophy at the University of Bergen, because their reasons, and eventually their So what about the political conditions
Norway, is concerned with understanding character traits, reflect what that agent necessary for the exercise of our autono-
the notion of freedom as it applies to authentically endorses by their choices. my? For Svendsen, protecting autonomy
autonomy, or free will, and in explaining Moreover, the agent has the ability to and our morality-based way of life depends
its role in shaping a society loyal to pro- reflect upon their reasons and character on the implementation and maintenance of
tecting freedom. I want to here present traits, and by exercising their choice, institutional conditions that support a lib-
Svendsen’s notion of autonomy, then elu- change them (p.78). eral democracy – in other words, on politi-
cidate it through evaluating the verdict in cal liberalism (p.94).
the Walter B. case (although Svendsen Walter B.: Criminal or Not? Political liberalism seeks to limit state
does not discuss this case, I believe it is To understand Svendsen’s position, let us power to what its citizens democratically
consistent with his philosophy). I’ll look at evaluate the verdict on the Walter B. case in support, while protecting the “individual
the role Svendsen believes autonomy light of his claims. rights against violations from other indi-
should have in creating a society. Lastly, I Walter B. had a pathological condition viduals, groups and, for that matter, the
raise some objections to Svendsen’s philos- causing him to lose control over aspects of state itself” (p.95). It “insists that the indi-
ophy of freedom. his behavior. Svendsen agrees that free vidual take precedence over the group,

46 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017 Book Reviews


because individual rights are inalienable tions undermining his position. For exam- ing themselves to blame – because they
and establish a space for the individual to ple, we can say that it was only by chance, didn’t try harder, for example. Or, if they’re
determine his own life course” (p.168). or perhaps by bad luck, that Walter never not seen as blameworthy, they are never-
What then are these basic freedom-sup- experienced the processes or influences that theless only entitled to minimal care.
porting universal rights? In summary, they would have provided him with what he Consequently, extreme inequality can
consist of rights to: security from physical would have needed to manifest his preferred result, with no moral objection being pre-
harm and illegal imprisonment; legal values, until it was too late. The operations sented to people increasing their advan-
equality; privacy; freedom of expression of chance didn’t provide him psychological- tages. So although Svendsen has given us a
and religion; own property; democratic ly with what he needed to engage in work- wealth of useful distinctions, arguments,
participation; freedom of assembly; a mini- ing more effectively to control his shame, and challenges to philosophical positions
mum standard of education, having the for instance. However, this factor of chance that anyone interested in free will would do
opportunity to develop one’s abilities; or luck means that we cannot simply or well to grapple with, his philosophy of free-
nutrition, shelter, and health; and to deter- blithely assess Walter as a morally deficient dom has also given us a moral and political
mine for oneself what gives life meaning criminal, rather than, say, an unlucky per- system whose intricate philosophical com-
without paternalistic interference. All these son of good character unfortunately unable ponents can be used to build a compassion
basic rights “are individually designed to to effectively control himself. extractor, in the name of morality.
promote autonomy” (p.171), and for The factor of chance or luck obscures © DR ALAN BRODY 2017
Svendsen are necessary for the proper the moral situation of human beings who Alan Brody has a PhD in philosophy and is a
operation of free choice. are subject to the vagaries of the universe, licensed psychotherapist and addiction specialist
despite their goodness. Furthermore, if living in Santa Fe.
Responsibility, Luck & Compassion society ignores the operation of luck, those
Unfortunately, Svendsen does not seem to in society who are less well-off can become • A Philosophy of Freedom, by Lars Svendsen, Reak-
appreciate how much chance has implica- regarded by the more fortunate as only hav- tion Books, 2014, 288pp, £25 hb, ISBN: 1780233701

Book Reviews February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 47

Lost In Translation
Films Laura D’Olimpio gazes thoughtfully at a
postmodern existential Platonic romance.

wo trends from twentieth century they carry this feeling of isolation around reaching a midlife crisis he ventures to Japan
French philosophy have been within them as they walk the muzak- to shoot a whiskey commercial, with the sole
major influences on cinema: exis- infused corridors of the hotel in which intention of making his money then return-
tentialism and postmodernism. Sofia they are confined, sleepless and in search ing home. His plans begin to alter when he
Coppola’s 2003 film Lost In Translation of some kind of meaning. starts to get to know Charlotte.
reflects both. It explores what might be This meaning is not forthcoming from The two first see each other in an eleva-
called a warm Platonic love, as depicted in external sources. Neither speak the lan- tor, that perfect symbol of transitory space.
the relationship between Bob (Bill Murray) guage, and the scenes of traditional Japan – This initial contact is visually framed by
and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), set flower arranging, attending a shrine, the many others who are also crowded into
against the background of Tokyo. watching a geisha walk past – are as mysti- the elevator, strangers going about their
There is relatively little dialogue cal to Charlotte as the self-help audio daily business. And thus the Other is
throughout the film, but its beauty is in recording she’s listening to in search of her acknowledged and a relationship born.
how much is conveyed non-verbally, not ‘destiny’ while she absent-mindedly Their fleeting glimmer of recognition is
only through body language, but via cine- smokes the occasional cigarette. recounted later, once they have grown
matography, lighting, editing, and the close. “Did I scowl at you?” Charlotte asks.
soundtrack. Lost in Translation sums up the Convergence “No,” Bob replies, “you smiled.”
feeling of looking for your place in a world Charlotte has been married for a couple of
in which you do not automatically belong. years to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a photogra- Existential Drift
Coppola’s subtlety in depicting an elusive pher whose work has led him to Japan. A This postmodern romance is imbued with
connection that transgresses the usual cat- recent philosophy graduate with no idea the kind of existentialism developed by
egories of what a relationship might look what she wants to do with her life, she tags Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
like allows viewers to easily follow the along with him for a holiday, and while he Writing in mid-twentieth-century Paris,
story of Bob and Charlotte, existential works she spends her time seeing the sights Sartre and de Beauvoir insisted that there is
characters seeking authenticity and recog- of the city and staring moodily out of the no predetermined essential self for us to
nition in the eyes of the Other, as they find hotel windows over the unfamiliar cityscape. ‘discover’, and no preordained purpose to
themselves dislocated in Japan. Their exis- Bob is not faring much better. An aging our lives either. Rather, we are each free to
tential angst is reflected in the bright, actor, he has been married for about a create our lives as we wish, according to
flashing lights of a city that feels foreign to decade, and has a couple of children whose values we ourselves choose. As we con-
the two Americans. Yet at the same time, birthdays he tends to forget. Just as Bob is struct ourselves to be who we desire to be,


“Lost In Translation sums

up the feeling of looking
for your place in a world
in which you do not
automatically belong.”

48 Philosophy Now l February/March 2017

we are also burdened by our responsibility and-coming hot-shot photographer.
for the choices we make. The incredible Meanwhile, Bob’s meets Charlotte in
weight of such freedom is ignored by most the hotel bar, where they bond over their
people, who choose to blame the course of jet lag and insomnia. They then bump into
their lives on external factors rather than one another a few times inside the hotel,
facing up to the fact that one chooses who
one becomes.
We see the burden of freedom weigh-
ing on Bob and Charlotte at different
moments. Despite all the new sights and
and later decide to venture into the city.
The time they spend isolated is gradually
replaced by their shared adventures as
their relationship grows quickly over the
course of the week. They willingly unite as
friendship with Charlotte. Obviously, she
sounds, a sense of isolation pervades their two free individuals who, in a moment in will not be told about either.
experiences, and echoes how each feel in time, in a particular place, feel a kinship
their lives generally. Charlotte admits she that resonates across the social spaces that Orientalism & Secrets
feels lost. Bob cannot seem to find any joy separate them. They have in common that The film has been accused of being racist,
in all the shiny new technology at his dis- they are American and bored and lonely. laughing at the Japanese people and culture
posal, nor in being recognised, or pho- But this is a cynical reading of the film: rather than with them, mocking their
tographed, nor in any of the other playful they also recognise in one another the shortness, their swapping of ls and rs, their
delights he’s offered that could occupy his desire for meaning and a sense that it is up ‘helpful’ technology that’s difficult to con-
time. The sense of purposelessness that to them as individuals to define their lives. trol, and their mimicry of the forms of
pervades their existence is however The weight of this responsibility is obvi- American culture, as skinny Japanese teens
replaced by a sense of connection and love, ously heavy as they look for signs and clues play video games dressed up as rock stars.
which emerges from their interactions as to where they should be, or that they In response, Coppola protests that her
with one another. It is only when they are are in the right place at the right time. It is script was based on her experiences in
together that we see them start to smile, to only when they’re sharing experiences Japan when she was in her twenties and that
soften, and to have fun. together that a feeling of ‘rightness’ and she loves Japan, its people and culture, and
the associated peace manifests. had no intention of mocking them.
The Gaze Not that the rightness of them together Coppola’s vision of Japan is indeed like that
Despite the differences between them – existentially means that they should be of Bob and Charlotte’s – from the outside,
Bob is a successful and now retired movie together romantically. Bob and Charlotte looking in from the West.
star, Charlotte a drifting graduate and have both made prior commitments, and Though in many ways an existentialist
aspiring writer – Bob and Charlotte get are clear about the confines and bound- film, Lost in Translation also reflects post-
one another. This connection means that aries of those relationships and the lives modernism – starting with its title and the
they see one another in a way that is miss- they live back home. But this shared, suggestion it carries of isolated, disjointed
ing from their primary relationships with secret world that neither of them fully perspectives. And as many postmodern films
their respective spouses. As they gaze at understand is real too. In fact, in many do, this one ultimately leaves it up to the
one another, they recognise their own ways, it is the most real world, as it viewer to decide. You may decide if the
reflections as seen by the Other, and slowly becomes the space where they are authen- Japan depicted is a place you wish to visit, or
begin to be able to see themselves sympa- tic, not only with one another, but with not. You may decide if Bob and Charlotte
thetically through the eyes of the Beloved. themselves. They are able to be listened are moral, or not, if they will ever see one
The role of the Gaze is of relevance to, heard, and use this reflection of them- another again, and whether their respective
here. The film commences with a stereo- selves to recall who they are. Often, not marriages will last. Ultimately, you must
typical male gaze, of Charlotte’s rear even words are required for them to com- even decide what Bob’s last words to
enclosed in pink panties as she lies on the municate with one another. They sing Charlotte are, since the ad-libbed whisper
bed in her hotel room, facing away from the karaoke; they sit and smoke a cigarette; by Bob into Charlotte’s ear remains a mys-
viewer. We as Subjects are invited to con- they watch TV and drink saké; they fall tery to this day, even to Coppola. This is fit-
sider the aesthetics of the female body as an asleep side by side on the bed, his hand ting, as no-one else ever truly knows what
Object to be looked at and enjoyed by a resting on her foot. Whether or not this goes on inside a relationship, what two peo-
heteronormative male eye. Yet this gaze is relationship is an ‘emotional affair’ and as ple truly mean to one another. That is
interrupted as the film plays out, since such a betrayal of their marital relation- sacred knowledge for those two alone. Each
Charlotte is neither sexualised nor por- ships is almost beside the point. The diffi- connection is created by free individuals
trayed as a submissive object; rather, she is a culty they might have in articulating what who themselves imbue those relationships
fleshed-out character with her own mus- they are to one another is to the point. with meaning. This is the mandate of a
ings, desires, and agency. She is later After they have become close, Bob ends up world without fixed essences.
depicted in the same panties in her hotel having a one night stand with a jazz singer © DR LAURA D’OLIMPIO 2017
room with her husband, but what is from the hotel, and this tryst leaves him Laura D’Olimpio is a Senior Lecturer in Philos-
remarkable is how mundane the scene is. emotionally cold and instantly full of ophy at the University of Notre Dame Australia,
She stubs her toe, and playfully asks John if regret. Strangely, this act seems to be a regular contributor to The Conversation and
he really has to go; but we do not see her more of a betrayal of Charlotte than of ABC Radio’s Philosopher’s Zone, Chairperson
objectified or sexualised by his gaze. In fact, Bob’s wife, although ironically, his wife for the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in
he seems immune to her charms to a large would undoubtedly be more upset by the Schools Associations, and co-editor of the open
degree, distracted by his career as an up- sexual infidelity than by his growing access Journal of Philosophy in Schools.

February/March 2017 l Philosophy Now 49

An Overdue Appearance
T allis of Immanuel Kant
Wonderland Raymond Tallis introduces a giant of philosophy
to Wonderland.

mmanuel Kant (1724-1804) has had refusal to separate objective reality from Kant’s World
scarcely a walk-on part in this column. subjective experience, and Sebastian Gard- Anyone who knows anything about Kant
This is a serious omission: the Sage of ner’s engrossing, closely-argued Guide to knows that his central idea is that the mind
Königsberg has a position in European phi- Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1999), which structures our experiences. And since (he
losophy similar to that occupied by Johann I have just finished. argues) all our knowledge begins from expe-
Sebastian Bach in Western classical music. The latter made clear something that rience, the world we take account of in our
Like Bach, Kant in some sense gathered up may justify Kant’s virtual absence from lives is also shaped by the mind. We do not
all that came before him and has been a deci- Wonderland. His thought is not only sub- have access to ‘things-in-themselves’ –
sive influence on all that followed him. tle, complex, and profound, but also densely denizens of what he calls the ‘noumenal’
His work has been an important presence interconnected. His arguments about the realm – reality as it is independent of our
in my life since my teens. My paperback nature of reality and the limitations of our experience of it. We have access only to
copy of the classic Kemp Smith translation access to it, about the self and its freedom, what he called the ‘phenomenal’ world of
of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), pur- about ethics, and about political philosophy, our experience. Still, we know that there
chased in the late Sixties, shows signs of are all of a piece. You cannot fully under- must be things-in-themselves providing the
intense study. Much sellotape has been stand any part of the mature Kant, without ultimate ground of our experiences, under-
applied to the cover, the spine is wizened by engaging with the whole. Not a philosopher pinning them. By proclaiming the existence
cracks, and every page bears biro marks of to be trifled with, then, in a column of 1,800 of this underlying reality, Kant distanced his
intense attention – underlinings and words. ‘transcendental’ idealism from the straight
marginal notes and explanations to self. Even so, I cannot resist sharing some idealism of Berkeley, for whom the world
Reading the Critique was clearly an impor- thoughts I have had recently, provoked in consists simply of perceptions and per-
tant experience to me, though, disturbingly, part by a conversation with Sebastian Gard- ceivers. (Berkeley’s ideas were superbly
I remember nothing of it. ner that led me to his Guide. It took place summarised by Hugh Hunter in ‘Berkeley’s
Over the subsequent half-century, other mostly at Venice Airport, and it is a miracle Suitcase’ in last issue’s Philosophy Now.)
writers have prompted me to engage indi- that we did not miss our plane. Our dialogue There is much that is intuitively attractive
rectly with the Critique. Highlights include is still ongoing, and I will focus only on the in Kant’s arguments. It is obvious that we are
P.F. Strawson’s famous response The Bounds question that has prompted it because I not just passive recipients of what is ‘out
of Sense (1966), Quentin Meillassoux’ pene- haven’t fully digested Sebastian’s responses, there’, transparent lenses through which
trating analysis After Finitude (2008), where and would almost certainly misrepresent reality passes en route to a mind that is effec-
Kant is rejected for his ‘correlationist’ them if I attempted a summary. tively a plane mirror. And his argument that
what is really real may be entirely unlike the
deliverances of ordinary experience is hardly
shocking to anyone accustomed to the
world-picture of physics, according to which
what is out there is profoundly different
from anything we would recognise from
daily life. Even so, Kant reaches some
strange, indeed outrageous, conclusions,
based on his view of the degree to which the
mind shapes its own experiences. The shap-
ing activity works at two levels: the imposi-
tion on our sensations of what he calls ‘the
forms of sensible intuition’ to make them
into representations of external objects; and
the imposition of the so-called ‘categories’ of
understanding on our experiences.
Immanuel Kant, His boldest claim is that space and time
the Sage of are neither substances in themselves nor a
Königsberg set of relations between pre-existing
objects, but are the forms of sensible intu-

50 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

ition. This means that it is courtesy of the A Critique of The Critique
mind that sensory experiences are referred Kant argued that pure sensations without
to, or are representations of, enduring concepts (that is, without the categories of
objects ‘out there’ located in a unified space the understanding) are ‘blind’, and that con-
and connected by a temporal order. In short, cepts without sensory content – products of
space and time are in the mind.
Almost as bold is his choice of categories,
the pure operation of the intellect – are
‘empty’. There’s consequently nothing to
T allis
or ‘pure concepts of the understanding’. be said about the things-in-themselves,
They’re a varied collection of items; but
perhaps the most eye-catching is causality.
Kant reported having been woken out of his
‘dogmatic slumber’ by David Hume’s attack
independent of our sensations of them, since
they can be thought about only through the
pure intellect. Nevertheless – and this is a
key concession, and a source of vulnerabil-
on metaphysics, but more specifically by ity for Kant’s system – the noumenal realm function of mind-in-general rather than of
Hume’s critique of the notion of causal must be the ultimate ground of experiences, individual consciousnesses, there is no basis
necessity as the cement of the universe. For of the phenomenal world we know and live for the allocation of distinct phenomenal
Hume, causal connections are not intrinsic in. If there were no such ground, we would worlds to individual subjects, and for the
relationships between material events, but be back with Berkeleian idealism. But what privileging of certain items to be experi-
generated by the mind’s capacity for making exactly do noumena do? Clearly the noume- enced. There seem to be no grounds for the
associations between experiences. This nal realm cannot cause the contents of the desk at which I am working being located
capacity leads us to infer from the fact that phenomenal realm, because causation near to me but distant from you, and even
A has always been seen to be followed by B belongs exclusively to the phenomenal more distant from William the Conqueror.
that A must always be followed by B, and this realm, being one of the categories of the Mind-in-general is not anchored in any
because A has the causal power to bring understanding that shape our experienced (particular) where.
about B. Kant agreed with Hume that cau- world. Is there any other sense in which the It is starting to look as if the noumenal
sation was not inherent in an extra-mental phenomena are underpinned, or somehow realm is not only unknowable but feature-
world, but felt that Hume had not gone far justified, by the noumena? Given that the less, and not only featureless but function-
enough. It was not only the putative causal latter share none of the properties of the less. This may not be altogether surprising,
relationship between A and B, but also their phenomenal realm, not even fundamental given that Kant’s starting point is that all our
location and spatial and temporal relations, ones such as location in space and time, it is knowledge comes from experience, which,
that were constructed by the mind. difficult to see what work the thing-in-itself by definition, is phenomenal. This implies
More (seemingly) outrageous conclu- does. In what respect does it determine, or that we can’t get to know the reality under-
sions follow. What appear to be indepen- constrain, experience? pinning our experience, even less the means
dently-constituted external objects, with a The question comes into even sharper by which it underpins it. We cannot get past
multitude of properties and enduring over focus if we think about space and time and our experience to have empirical knowledge
time – and, indeed, the unity of the world ask whether the Kantian mind can be an of what lies beyond it. (This is a message lost
itself – all require “the synthetic power of individual consciousness, or must be mind- on those who think they can point to brain
the mind.” This power is manifest in “the in-general. My world is characterised by activity to completely explain experience, or
unity of apperception,” which we might see objects that are present to me; some near at who look to the general properties of matter
as the binding of an individual’s perceptions hand and others that are remote. Other to understand the totality of things, includ-
of the world into a single coherent picture. objects lie beyond my experience. Your ing ourselves who do the understanding.)
This, says Kant, is underwritten by the ‘I world has different contents. What explains Kant’s mind-bogglingly complex argu-
think’ that accompanies all our perceptions. my experiencing the desk on which I am ments are a way of saying how, while we are
This line of thought took him to his most writing, and not experiencing the Battle of not imprisoned by our experiences, we can-
startling conclusion: that “the synthetic Hastings or a rock on the far side of the not get outside of them because they are that
power of the mind is the lawgiver of nature.” Moon? It can’t be something imposed by my in virtue of which there is ‘outside’. And his
It would be foolish to mock this last asser- individual mind, for we are asking what Critique reminds us that reason can point to
tion by asking whether, say, the General makes my mind individual. So there must be places where there is nothing that can be
Theory of Relativity was arrived at by collec- extra-mental, indeed extra-experiential, known, and nevertheless can raise questions
tive introspection. This would not do justice grounds for my experiencing my desk and that will fruitfully disturb us without oblig-
to what is admirable in Kant; namely the not the Battle of Hastings, and indeed, ing us, or philosophy, to answer them.
depth at which he addressed questions such as underpinning the difference between a true If I have recently understood this more
‘How can I know what is outside of myself?’ experience and an hallucination, or an expe- clearly, it is thanks to Sebastian Gardner’s
The bankruptcy of the favourite contempo- rience and the mere idea of an experience. Guide and our still-ongoing discussion. I
rary answer - that we know the world outside The difference must be due, at least chiefly, intend to return to that tattered paperback.
us because it is represented inside us by neu- to where my body is. But since to Kant my Kant may not have made his last appearance
ral activity triggered by what is outside of us body, being an object located in space and in Wonderland.
– should warn us against condescension. And time, is not a native of the noumenal realm, © PROF. RAYMOND TALLIS 2017
there are many other reasons for taking it cannot play any part in grounding my Raymond Tallis’s latest book The Mystery of
Kant’s ideas seriously enough to challenge experiences and explaining why I experience Being Human: God, Freedom and the
their implications. Let me focus on one that this rather than that. If, on the other hand, NHS was published in September. His website
has been preoccupying me. we think of spatio-temporal location as a is

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 51

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February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 53

A Conversation With
Simone Weil
Elisabetta Rombi talks social justice and love with the revolutionary philosopher.

imone Weil was one of the most remarkable thinkers of tary systems without breaking them. Revolutionary movements
the past century: a philosopher, a mystic, and a political gave us the illusion of power only by destroying the last ves-
activist. Born in France in 1909, she grew up with a Chris- tiges of feudalism and establishing capitalism either in the
tian outlook even though her parents were Jewish agnostics and shape of private enterprise or in the shape of the state, as hap-
her brother André a mathematician. pened in Russia.”
She was above all an outsider. Critical of institutions, she stated “But the revolution in Russia appeared to be a completely
that “the task of the intellect requires complete freedom.” She new beginning,” I say.
never joined any party or church. She argued against Trotsky in “Yes, ‘appeared’ to be. The truth is that the privileges the
print and in person, saying that elite communist bureaucrats could Party abolished already no longer had any social reality, they
be as oppressive as the worst capitalists, and was one of the rare existed only through the exercise of traditions, while the real
few who held her own with the Red Army founder. She came powers – I mean the great industry, the police, the army, the
into contact not only with Plato and Kant, but also with Eastern bureaucracy – not only were not destroyed by that revolution,
culture, including the Bhagavad Gita, and learned Sanskrit as well but thanks to the revolution, they became even more powerful.”
as Greek. She taught philosophy at a secondary school for girls, “Is it true that when you were ten you considered yourself a
considering school a political place, where one comes into con- Bolshevik?”
tact with all social classes. She tried to offer her pupils “the nec- She smiles at me, amused: “I was born into an open-minded
essary tools not to become victims of propaganda.” On leave from family.”
teaching, she worked in a factory to understand the workers’ con- “You certainly grew up with a strong sensitivity for social
dition. Although she professed herself a pacifist, she fought in justice.”
the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She died in 1943, “My brother taught me to read when I was five, at the out-
when she was only thirty-four. Her most famous works were pub- break of the First World War. Each child adopted a soldier, and
lished posthumously. sent him gifts and letters. I soon received my exchange letter
Weil’s philosophy is difficult to grasp since it’s expressed in from the front. This destroyed the innocence of my childhood.”
fragmentary way, but her deep engagement with the theory and “I guess it helped you develop a consciousness of others’
practice of caritas (charity/love) in all its myriad forms func- sorrows, which later led you to make unusually generous
tioned as a unifying force in her life and thought. Some of the choices, such as in the war against Franco in Spain? I know you
other key concepts of her philosophy are good and evil, grav- were there in theory as a news correspondent, but in actual fact
ity, the void, grace, beauty, suffering, attention, and waiting for you’d joined a group of activists.”
God. She’s concerned with respect for the individual, society, “As you certainly also know, everyone else in that group
one’s roots, work, and dignity, and focused on the oppressed, died. I was safe because of a wound I received from a fire, and
on slavery. Today, when hidden forms of slavery are widely was forced to leave.” We remount our bikes and start peddling,
spread, her thought seems extraordinarily up-to-date. Simone talking as we ride along.
Weil’s deep engagement, in an idiosyncratic, tough-minded way, “It wasn’t the only time you lived out your sympathy for the
with the theory and practice of compassion and generosity, led working class.”
Albert Camus to call her “the only great spirit of our times.” “If you’re talking about my factory work, it was only normal
Weil’s words in the following story are taken from her own to want to have that experience. It didn’t last long, as I was
books. The dialogue is loosely based on my novel Living Is Not unwell. But I was to be forever marked by that experience. I was
Enough. branded a slave. You may think it’s weird, but my strongest feel-
ing was resignation. I got so used to feeling like a slave that I

t the break of dawn the village is wrapped in silence, a would find it normal if somebody had ordered me to get off the
hamlet on a hill cocooned in sleep. At the edge of the bus and walk. I am not proud to confess this, but I felt the sub-
village I find my bike and ride to our meeting place. mission of a beast of burden. It’s the sort of suffering which no
Simone is waiting for me at the crossroads. I can see her tall, labourer will talk about, for it’s too painful to even think about.”
slim silhouette in the distance. “Did you get anything positive from the experience?”
“Revolution,” she says as I arrive, turning to look at me: “Well, I felt as though I were outside every abstract world,
“It’s a word for which you kill, you die, you send masses to in contact with real life, side by side with real men and women,
their deaths. But it doesn’t have any meaning.” regardless of their being good or evil. They were authentic.”
“It’s a word capable of giving us hope,” I answer. “Your works say to me that without a vision of real life it’s
“What we ask of revolution,” she goes on, “is the end of impossible to act incisively.”
social oppression – of slavery. But experience has shown us “Whenever something external prevents us from fulfilling
that a revolutionary party can seize the bureaucratic and mili- our wishes, we soon look for imaginary satisfaction. This is loss

54 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017


of energy. Since we are made unreal by our imagination, which increasing the burden of social oppression to the same degree,
is a deteriorated form of energy, we badly need to become flesh.” as if human freedom were balancing on a mysterious scale…”
“You went to Germany in 1932. What struck you most there?” “How can the down-turn be avoided?”
“At the time, the German working class was the most orga- “I don’t have any recipes, only intuitions. Nothing can
nized in Europe. I was struck by their blind faith in Nazism. A impede man from feeling himself born to freedom. He can
violent hatred towards the establishment attracted them to it, never accept his slavery because he is able to think.”
without them realizing that National Socialism was strong “Not always! Sometimes he can’t see beyond his slavery.”
exactly because it belonged to the class that oppressed them.” “We don’t live in perfect freedom, but we must try to envision
“After that journey you wrote Considerations On The Causes Of it, so that we may hope to reach a less imperfect freedom. We
Freedom And Social Oppression. What was the fundamental ques- can reach for an ideal. The ideal is as unreachable as a dream; but
tion in that work, would you say?” unlike the dream, it has a relationship with reality. The most
“The puzzle I was trying to solve was understanding the sacred need of our soul is for it to be protected against the power
link between social oppression and the improvements man had of falsehood and suggestion. The need for freedom necessi-
been able to reach in regards to his relationship with nature. It’s tates our protection against propaganda and the power of sug-
as if man cannot free himself from his natural needs without gestion. Whatever is going to influence public opinion should

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 55

be submitted to the same guidelines that rule public actions.” “First we need a critical analysis in various fields to identify
“But now we live in a global society where powerful people what is right to human beings, and what can be used by the
use advertising and propaganda in an overwhelming way. How community as weapons against people. Whoever embarks on
can we protect ourselves?” the critical analysis I’m talking about can escape the community
“Without factories, without weapons, without powerful vertigo, and sign a personal pact with the spirit of the universe,
mass media, you can do nothing against whoever possesses rejecting social idolatry.”
them. The weapons of power are oppressive, whereas the “Here it isn’t difficult to be eager to sign that pact,” I com-
weapons of the weak are useless. And whenever oppressed peo- ment. We’re riding beside steep, vertical rocks, beyond which
ple have gathered to exert some kind of influence – I mean, to we can see the transparency of an incredible blue-green sea.
form trade unions or political parties – they’ve reproduced “The real presence of God lives in the beauty of the world.”
within themselves all the faults of the regime they wanted to Simone’s eyes are lit up. “But beauty is a trap designed to cap-
modify or destroy.” ture humanity. It’s a trick, an enigma that torments us with sor-
“Nothing can be done, then?” row. We would like to be nourished by it, but we can only look
“The only chance left would be the constant cooperation of at it, and even so, only at a distance. The agony of human life is
everyone to devolve power progressively. But that ideal’s that eating and looking at things are two different things. Per-
clearly an absurdity! Not even in a dream can you imagine haps all vices, all crimes, are in their essence, usually, or perhaps
anything like that in a society based on rivalry and war! It’s always, attempts to devour beauty – attempts to eat what cannot
clearly impossible that in such a society centralised power be eaten but must only be looked at. If in eating fruit Eve was
would start to devolve power. No tyrant in the world can be so the first to condemn humanity, then looking at fruit without eat-
wise. What can be done in such a world?” I’m out of breath, ing it should be the deed of salvation.”
but Simone goes on: “Nothing! All you can do is try to loosen “Can you tell me what you mean by ‘passive acceptance, the
the mechanisms that are crushing us, and seize any opportu- action without acting’?”
nity to wake up some thought wherever you can. Anything giv- “Yes. That concept is inspired by Eastern philosophy. It’s
ing a chance to the individual to enjoy a bit of freedom is action that springs from a situation, giving voice to it, with
worth being sought out. What can be more generous than a nobody showing off. In other words, you act only because you
task that aims to create a future of freedom, overstepping the are forced to do so – because it’s not possible to do otherwise.”
limit of one’s existence? Unfortunately, whoever embarks on “I like the idea in your book The Need For Roots, of breaking
such a mission will have to endure condemnation, solitude, up great factories in order to create small factories owned by
misunderstanding, and the hostility of enemies and friends, all their workers.”
without any guarantee. No reward is pledged even for the “That would be a system which was neither capitalist nor
most generous efforts. Yet none of these reasons will deflect socialist. Russian Communism did not destroy the proletarian
the will of a steady soul once it has understood what to do.” condition. Rather, it made everyone proletarian!”
“But how can we achieve it?” “I also like what you wrote on the education of young people
– most of all, your idea of getting beyond the division between
physical labour and intellectual work.”
“Modern culture was born in an environment oriented
towards technology and fragmented into specializations, and so
has been devoid of any contact with the real and the supernat-
ural worlds. Such a culture, deprived of its treasure, has been
used to educate the masses! They try to teach what’s left of this
culture to the unlucky, and to the ones who are most anxious to
learn, just as though they were feeding chickens with seeds.
Amongst all the forms of uprootedness, being uprooted from
culture is the worst, the most alarming.”
“It’s true that your life and thought have been marked by
the search for truth, a constant study where you confronted
difficult books from both the Western and Eastern traditions,
involving various disciplines, and oblivious of contradictions –”
“Our life is in itself an impossibility. Each desire stands in
contradiction to the conditions or consequences related to it.
Each sentence implies its opposite. Every feeling is confused
with the contrary. We are a contradiction because we are crea-
tures – because we are in God and enormously different from
God. The contradiction is our poverty, and the feeling of
poverty is the feeling of truth.”
“I can see a strong connection between your thirst for jus-
tice and truth and your Christianity.”
She stops cycling to look at me directly: “I was raised a

56 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017


Christian, and I’ve always been faithful to it, so to speak.” Near the rocks that limit the beach there’s a strong scent of
I object, “But your father was an atheist. Even if your family seaweed. Simone is silent for a while, then gazing at the hori-
had Jewish origins, you didn’t have a religious upbringing!” zon, she says: “The Christian way of life was to me the best
“Ever since my adolescence I thought we don’t have an perspective to consider the problems of the world. Since my
answer to the question of the existence of God. The only way childhood I had the notion of charity towards one’s neighbour,
of avoiding a mistake – which is what should be avoided the to which I gave the beautiful name ‘Justice’.”
most – was not to ask the question. So I didn’t ask. I neither “What’s the relationship between charity and justice, in
affirmed nor denied.” your opinion?”
We leave our bicycles, and walk towards the sea. Our feet “The Gospels don’t make any distinction between them.
sink in the sand. There is nothing awkward in Simone. On the We invented the distinction, and it’s not difficult to see why –
contrary, there is elegance in her every gesture. As if she has because giving is therefore considered a good deed rather than
sensed my thoughts, she smiles, her large eyes shining. I think a requirement of justice. But only the absolute identification of
about her, a good-looking woman who has denied herself her justice and love makes compassion and gratitude possible.”
own beauty, all her life hiding behind glasses, baggy dresses, and “Yet you refused to become a member of the Church, in
hats. She certainly considers vanity a form of idolatry. spite of Father Perrin’s invitation.”

February/March 2017 ● Philosophy Now 57

“I was struck by his helpfulness, but I felt it necessary within continuously! It won me over completely. I think it’s impossi-
myself to be by myself. There’s a Catholic environment that’s ble to say the Lord’s prayer, paying full attention to every
ready to accept anyone who comes in with warmth. But I did- word, even just once, without a real change inside you.”
n’t want to live in a place where they use the word ‘us’, and be “But the pervading presence of evil in the world is so upset-
part of an ‘us’. I didn’t want to feel at home in any community, ting,” I tell her.
wherever it was. But ‘I didn’t want’ would not be the right “If there were no evil, you would never renounce this
words. On the contrary, I would have liked to; it would have world,” she answers simply. “Evil is the transfer of the degra-
been gratifying. Nevertheless, I felt I wasn’t allowed to do so. I dation one has within oneself onto others. While suffering, an
felt that I was forced to be alone – a foreigner and outcast innocent person spreads the light of salvation upon the crime
wherever I happened to be, in whichever community I was in, he is victim of: he is the visible image of the innocent God.
with no exceptions.” The suffering innocent knows the truth about his persecutor,
“What do you mean by ‘obeying gravity’?” the criminal doesn’t. The evil that the innocent carries within
“Obeying gravity is the worst sin; it dissolves freedom. belongs to his persecutor, but this evil is no longer emotional.
During my frequent headaches I experienced the desire to If evil is the root of mystery, sorrow is the root of knowledge.”
make someone else suffer the same pain I was suffering. In “But why is it so difficult for people to truly discern human
great afflictions, the consequences of gravity are rather ridicu- misery?”
lous, and a bit disgusting.” “It’s difficult for the rich and powerful because they believe,
“What then is the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion to you?” in an almost invincible way, that they are worth something. It’s
“Virtue is keeping in ourselves the sorrow that one suffers – difficult for the poor because they believe, in an almost invinci-
not spreading it around using either actions or imagination. So ble way, that the rich and powerful are worth something.”
maybe one of the possible meanings is that the sorrow, shame, “What’s the true grandeur of humanity, then, if there is any?”
and death that one doesn’t want to impose on others fall back “Human grandeur consists of one’s attempt to create one’s
on oneself, without one wanting it.” life over and over again – in creating what one has been given,
“Would you say then that God sends us heartache to save even in forging what one endures.”
us?” I ask. “What then is our strength?”
“Certainly not. Affliction is evil. But grief can be good. Some “Nothing but our thoughts. Not as conscience, opinion; not
aches make one lose contact with the world, others make one in the way idealists claim. Thought is strength when it partici-
make contact with it. Nevertheless, God doesn’t make us suffer as pates in material life.”
a test: he only allows the natural operation of pain according to “As happened in your life…”
its own mechanism. Otherwise he wouldn’t have withdrawn from “One should accept the idea of being nameless, of being
creation to let us be, and so be willing not to be any longer. But simply ‘human substance’. One should give up esteem, recog-
God’s absence is the most extraordinary proof of perfect love. If nition. This only means being faithful to the truth. We are
one thinks that God could be close to us without destroying the human substance. We have no rights. We should strip our-
self, one completely ignores everything about God.” selves of any decoration, and bare ourselves.”
“But what do we really know about God?” “What way of thinking can help do this?” We’ve arrived back
“About God we know nothing but one thing: God is not at the crossroads.
what we are.” “Death warns us that we are not gods. It is precisely for this
“How can we hold the supernatural in our souls, then?” reason that we find death so painful, until we completely
“We draw energy daily from everyday life. If this energy understand it.”
isn’t constantly renewed we lose our strength. Money, profes- “To understand it –” I can’t finish the sentence, as Simone
sion, honour, reputation, fame, power, or our beloved are goes on, “As soon as one finds a point of eternity in one’s soul, the
sources of energy for us. If one of them has penetrated deeply only thing one should do is keep it safe, let it grow, like a seed.”
into our soul, once we’re deprived of it, we die. However, I accept her words as a personal gift. “Thank you,” I say,
there is an energy that is transcendental, which comes from “for your company and for the ride. But finally, may I ask you
above and penetrates us whenever we wish it to, transforming something more personal? What do you think of friendship?”
into action in our body and soul. This is the bread we should “It’s a virtue,” she answers. Seeing my surprise, she contin-
ask for. And we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of this authentic ues, “One cannot look for friendship, nor can one dream of it
nourishment even for one day.” or wish for it. One practices it.”
“Why is this important?” I ask her as we head back to our “How can we recognize true friendship, then?”
bicycles. “A flawless sign to distinguish it, is not finding any opposi-
“Everything in us is ruled by needs which force us to com- tion between friendship and internal solitude.”
mit evil, except the energy from above. But you cannot accu- Before leaving, she turns towards me, her eyes still shining,
mulate a supply of it – you must ask for this bread every day. and she shouts out: “There is no greater sin than not being
Whoever asks for bread doesn’t receive stones.” able to nourish oneself with light!”
“You’re reciting Jesus’ prayer: Give us each day our daily bread.” © ELISABETTA ROMBI 2017
“Prayer is nothing but attention in its purest form. When I Elisabetta Rombi is a teacher of English literature, fiction writer and
discovered the intensity, the unlimited tenderness, of the essayist. Parts of the novel mentioned were performed during the
Greek text of this prayer, I couldn’t help saying it to myself philosophical festival held in Cagliari in 2015.

58 Philosophy Now ● February/March 2017

The Ethics
of an Outlaw
Translated by David Broder

Paperback & eBook £21.99

l t d into
i t English
Eng for the first time
Ivan Segré, celebrated international philosopher
and scholar of the Talmud,
Talmud, reclaims
reclaims Spinoza as a
faithful interpreter
interpreter of the revolutionary
revolutionary potential
contained within the Old d Testament.



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