Monday, 27 June 2016

The Misconstruction of Construction

Posted by Christian Sötemann
More than one philosophical theory has been suggested as a way to construe the world primarily as a construction accomplished by human mental faculties – rather than as mere passive depiction of the objective state of the world. 
Such approaches (most overtly in what is called ‘constructivism’) suggest that what we seem to perceive as characteristics of the external world are essentially the results of a hidden process of internal construction. It seems to me that there are at least two possible misunderstandings of this particular mindset: firstly, that the mental construction process occurred out of thin air, and secondly, that in a constructed world, there are no criteria to distinguish fact from fiction.

To maintain that there can be only mental construction and nothing else would seem to imply human beings construct the experienced world from scratch. However, this quickly turns out to be a far from unassailable view. For a start, it appears to be impossible to construct a world of experience out of nothing at all. A putative building block devoid of any characteristics, of any potential or impact whatsoever is an empty conception and cannot lead to the emergence of something that exhibits certain qualities.

Elements of construction that are nothing are no elements of construction. If you combine nothing with nothing you will still end up with nothing.

There has to be something that can be processed and modified, some material that is used for the construction process; though this is not sufficient evidence for the existence of matter itself, which cannot automatically be extrapolated from the necessity of the existence of some sort of material for the process of mental construction.

What is more is that the process of construction is something in itself. An event has to occur in some way so that construction can take place. The something that provides the material for construction and the something that induces the construction process cannot emerge out of that very process they are supposed to enable in the first place. Therefore it is – by way of a placeholder – ‘a something’ that must be considered beyond construction.

Similarly, it always seems to be necessary to add ‘a somebody’ - some sort of person or centre of mental activity - to accomplish the construction, since without such a carrier, there could not be any cohesive mental process. If single acts of mental construction occurred incoherently here and there, it would merely mean occasional mental flickering and not have the connectedness that an experienced world evidently has, with its continuity in space and time. This does, on the other hand, not necessarily suggest the notion of a corporeal human being as carrier of mental construction: even our perceived body might dogmatically be regarded as a construct of experience and cognition itself.

Moving over to the second possible misunderstanding, just because the experienced world can be conceived as largely a result of construction processes of the mind, it does not mean that there were no difference between mere opinion and well-researched facts and were I to claim that I was able to construct the world in any way I want it to be would be to run the risk of self-delusion.

So what do constructivist authors (such as the American professor Ernst von Glasersfeld) suggest as means of differentiation instead? Put bluntly: some things work, others do not. I experience obstacles that point out to me that certain attempts to construct and construe a reality do not work. Consider these simple examples from the world of concrete objects, like that evergreen case of the table, beloved for philosophers from Plato to Bertrand Russell: 

Imagine a person from a culture that does not utilise tables at all. Exposed to a table standing in a garden, this person might conclude that this unknown object is a device to provide shelter from the rain. Is this viable? It surely is: I can sit down under the table in case of rain and hence be kept from getting wet. This may not be the original intention of our table-utilising culture, but it can be done that way. What cannot be done, for instance, is that I regard the table standing in the garden as some projected image that I can simply walk through if so inclined. I experience that this does not work. I will find that the table standing there hinders me from just walking through it.

Similarly, a plate could be used as a paperweight, a shield, or a percussive instrument, but not a beverage or a pen: I cannot make it a liquid for me to drink or have it emit ink. So, from a mindset that emphasises the aspect of mental construction, several alternatives are found to be viable – even if possibly inconvenient and not the best of alternatives – but others are not viable at all. There is a limit to the alternative usages and interpretations available. I may not be able to know the outside world beyond my experience, but in that very experience I can find out what this outside world allows me not to do. This acknowledgement of obstacles necessarily means that I have to relinquish the idea of living in a world I can equip in any way I want to.

There are plenty of utterly legitimate criticisms concerning philosophical stances emphasising construction (and not only constructivism itself), but the more useful step is to undertake a clarification of some of the typical misunderstandings. This can transform disagreement resting on disbelief and gut feelings into informed criticism.

Christian H. Sötemann has degrees in psychology and philosophy, and works in psychological counselling and as a lecturer in Berlin, Germany. He can be contacted via:

Monday, 20 June 2016

Poetry: A Deal Struck Between Poetry and Applause

 A poem by Chengde Chen 

A Deal Struck Between Poetry and Applause

(But not just about poetry)

I do not understand the poem the poet has recited.
But it is applauded, so it must be me being stupid.
So I consult others, on my left and right.
Surprisingly, they shake their heads, as well.
I ask them why they had applauded.
They say that it was just being polite.

So I ask the poet, quietly, to explain its meaning.
He tells me, quietly too, what it is about.
The meaning is rather simple, nothing much.
I say, ‘If so, shouldn’t it be made easier to follow?’
He says, ‘I know, mate, but you know,
if it was easy, would it be poetry?’

Gosh, the resonant deal between poetry and applause
is, in fact, a tacit collaboration between two frauds.
First, the poet tricks the audience through obscurity –
making a simple thing a mystery that sounds deep.
Then, the audience fools the poet with pretence –
as if having reached the depth that doesn’t exist.

As obscure poetry generates dishonest applause,
dishonest applause makes poetry more obscure.
I wish I could ask everyone who had applauded
to explain his or her every clap on the spot.
If there had been no such pretence of orgasm,
how long could the act of love-making last?

However, not to make myself an enemy of the world,
I’d better beat this poetic business psychologically first.
That is to regard this hypocritical applause
as a tribute to me for my not applauding –
as an apology for my loneliness,
as salutation to my honesty.

Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems. Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here

Monday, 13 June 2016

The Unelected Super-Rich Showing Brits to the Exit

Posted by Martin Cohen
On the 23rd of June 2016, the UK votes on whether or not to 'leave' the European Union and regain full control over its own affairs instead. At least, that's how the argument is put by those in favour of the move. 
For humdrum workers in industries that actually import or export products or materials to the EU, it only means higher tariffs and complicated paperwork. For bosses it means increased costs and uncertainty – and reduced investment. But for one group, it does indeed promise a splendid new dawn of 'freedom'. This group is the super-rich, and they work in financial services in the City of London.

For them the battle lines with the EU were drawn after the crash of 2007/8 which so nearly collapsed the entire Western banking system. The response, apart from pouring billions of taxpayer dollars, euros and yes, British pounds into the pockets of the injured speculators, was increased regulation.

And so the dirty secret, as I see it, of Brexit is the financial services industry jockeying for 'lighter touch' regulation. But this issue has not been given prominence - instead we have talk about conventional business, trade flows, workers rights and currency rates. A constant complaint has been that EU laws are made by people who are unelected – which is simply not true. The real levers of power in the EU remain firmly in the hands of the national governments. But no one is interested in how the EU really works, they just want to stop the 'migrants'.

The UK is obsessed with keeping out migrants. Indeed, waves of Somalis, Afghans, Iraqis and now Syrians are rather alarming – and certainly include a whole host of issues about conflicting social values. But what people mean by this is fellow Europeans. People who are better educated that the average Brit, and far more cultured, all they want to do is work hard and be useful members of the community. But many British resent or even hate them in just the same irrational way as uneducated whites hate people of colour. Because they're 'different'. This is why the British are such poor members of the Union, and if they vote themselves out of it in June, it will be this kind of nationalism that will have won it for 'Leave'.

But giving 'the great unwashed' – the lower classes – this power is not usually done. Indeed the UK is primarily voting in a rare referendum because for decades leading the (ruling) Conservative party has been impossible without assuaging the demands of a noisy Europhile group. Even now, if the UK Parliament had an unencumbered vote, they would not hesitate but to continue working within the EU. In this way, the unelected bosses of the hedge funds and spread-betting firms who have been backing the 'Leave' campaign  are driving the British where they want.

These are people like Richard Tice, co-chair of Leave; Crispin Odey, Peter Cruddas, a former Conservative Party Treasurer; Stuart Wheeler of IG; Michael Hintze, Conservative donor; not to entirely forget Edi Truell, Brexiter and again a major Conservative donor.

For these city speculators – 'value trashers', in City jargon – the possibility of the pound plummeting, of share prices collapsing, of market and political dislocations with dire and unpredictable consequences – all represent big opportunities and easy money.

Market disruption is excellent news for them, and so will any longer-term  post-Br exit dislocation.

And so, to sum up, the 'real story', as I see it, of Brexit is the worst elements of the financial services industry jockeying for 'lighter touch' regulation. It's the poachers tricking the rabbits into letting them be the gamekeepers.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Picture Post No. 13 The Worshippers

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Agency image from the 2016 US Presidential Primaries campaign. These fans can’t quite believe they're standing near THE Donald Trump
There’s a cartoonish air to this image, amusing and entertaining underlying something grotesque, fake and appalling, thus appealing? The (Italian) cartone, a sheet of paper, offers us a blank space to start to represent a scene. America is the land of the comic book, and of Disney.

Take the central woman who seems almost a caricature of an excited fan. Her face expresses the meeting with the unexpected. The facial expression of the boy on the left is equally intense, almost orgiastic. The woman on the right seems to unfold her ladylikeness by touching her hair and the woman behind her seems embraced by unexpected joy. Similarly ingredients for cartoon characters are mixed on paper. Perhaps this is why the picture is funny at first sight; we are recognising our own emotions in caricatures. Laughter disguises pain.

Looking up to people, (admiration) is a very human, very old phenomenom. So it touches belief, right? The belief not so much in people but in a better and in a worse universe. An age-old human trait that seems as strong as ever, and yet a bit strange in the 21st century…And so, yes, first there is this zany, ‘funny cartoon’ impression but behind the facial masks, what is hidden?

Images should make us think, like rain is the memory of plants. The scene of the enthusiastic crowd, the 'admiring throng', is an old visual stand-by. But the belief is not so much in individual people as in the existence of a better universe, populated by imaginary characters.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Deconstructing Boris

By Martin Cohen 
'Deconstruction,' wrote Jacques Derrida, 'is justice.' Yet deconstruction's effectiveness has been questioned as a political tool. Often it has been accused of political quietism. No clear political consequences may be drawn, it is said, from an interpretive theory that claims that all meanings are unstable. Chomsky condemned Derrida as 'plain gibberish'.
But watch, as we apply some deconstruction to a topical issue in the context of British politics. There's plenty of gibberish emerging, and that fact reflects not a fault in the deconstructionist technique but rather that a great deal of political language is, as deconstructionists might say, 'at variance with itself '. Put another way, there are contradicitons and exposing contradictions is the proper task of both politics and philosophy.

Now to the case in point. 

Earlier this month (May 2016) Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson stepped down as Mayor of London – his eyes apparently firmly set on becoming the next Prime Minster of England. As leading light of the British campaign to 'free itself' from the European Superstate, his fate depends now on public pereceptions of his good character and honesty. And a central element of his political platform – his explicit policy – is to speak out determinedly against political leeches – famously referring to those who have 'their little jaws wrapped blissfully around the giant polymammous udder of the state'. It is a comment which may come to follow him around for some time to come.

Now, in terms of deconstruction, what one does is to examine Johnson's stated policy for any signs of oppositions which may be at variance with it or work against it. Happily – though not for Johnson – we do not need to look far. Johnson himself has not been above appointing cronies to publicly funded positions as special advisors.

There are, on the one hand, the unpaid advisors who come from the ranks of the great and the good. Then there are the paid ones, the media moles, the political cronies … and the City financiers lining their own nests. They are paid, despite seeming often to have few special duties or responsibilities other than to make up a kind of political court for Boris Johnson.

Some examples already in the public eye:

• Political

Ian Clement, conservative apparatchik (government and external relations, £124,364) who was forced to quit over the misuse of a corporate credit card, and for claiming back expenses for a business dinner with the Tory leader of Barnet council Mike Freer, which appears not to have taken place. Just days after his boss, Boris Johnson, publicly stood by him.

Richard Barnes, (Deputy mayor for communities, salary £92,594)
Conservative London assembly member for Ealing and Hillingdon and previously leader of Hillingdon borough council.

• Media

Guto Harri, The former BBC political correspondent (£124,364).

Anthony Browne, Policy director (£124,364), former Observer and Times journalist, director of the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange,

Andrew Gilligan, senior reporter for the Daily Telegraph, and his cycling advisor whose meagre workload in 2015 included 'Lunch with Chief Reporter Telegraph re Mayor's cycle vision' … for which he claimed back £80. His modest special advisor salary of £50k (pro rata, but in addition to his Telegraph one) notwithstanding.

But above all it is the City connections that are most alarming. And here the sums of public money flowing towards private wallets run into the millions and multimillions.

• City Chums

After his victory, partly based on protecting the City of London from EU regulation, he appointed one of the City donors to his election campaign, Edmund Lazarus, to a £14,000-a-year spot on the board of the London Development Agency.

With so many dodgy appointments, attention has hardly been focused on one unpaid advisor: Edi Truell, a multimillionaire city financier who the Mayor appointed as his unpaid special advisor for pensions. However, Edi Truell is perhaps the most dangerous appointment of them all.

At his confirmation hearing in London, it emerged that he was being confirmed without providing a CV. 'We asked about a CV and we were advised by the Mayor’s office that his letter recommending appointment gave a summary of what he felt were the qualities of the candidate.'

Nor, worryingly, did he provide the committee with a list of possible conflicts of interests. Apart from the one about selling insurance to pension funds, and the strange project to sell 'sustainable renewable' energy to the UK via a fantastically long cable from hot springs in Iceland.

It all gets rather too complicated. The details are in the public domain for those who should wish to unravel them and I've written a bit more here. But the long and the short of it is that Truell would seem to have his  little jaws wrapped blissfully around the giant polymammous udder of the state. At the city financier's confirmation hearing to become Boris's pensions guru, it emerged that in at least one case – pensions management – he stood to make millions of pounds from his new role. This money however, Truell reassured the committee, was pledged already to charity.

To return to the beginning. Has some simple deconstruction proved its political punch? Surely yes. Whatever we thought of Johnson, we cannot think the same after the application of the technique. In fact we would do well to apply it in every political arena. One may easily take politics at face value – just as one may take Boris at face value – digging no deeper than his vivid objections to political leeches, and in the next few weeks his loud and apparently passionate denunciations of the European Superstate as the home of elitism and the enemy of democracy.

Whatever Derrida may have meant by the term,  deconstruction, in such cases, is an essential political tool.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Revisiting Scientific Revolutions  Incandescent Collection
Posted by Thomas Scarborough 
Thomas Kuhn was wrong.  He failed to understand the dynamics of scientific revolutions. Far from such revolutions occurring through an accumulation of evidence – until, so to speak, the dam bursts – they fail to occur until such time as scientific constraints have been weakened – namely, the scientific method.  I shall explain.
In recent generations, we have witnessed a rising awareness of an inter-connected world, and cosmos. One of the results of modern science in particular is the perception that 'everything is related to everything else'.  Yet paradoxically, even at the same time, we find that science requires the very opposite of openness to the totality of things, to survive and to thrive. For science to advance, there is the need for scientific control on the one hand, and a strictly normed language on the other. In the words of Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen, science must 'screen things out'. This applies to all four phases of the scientific method: characterisations, hypotheses, predictions, and experiments.

There is something equally true about science which we typically do not much pay nearly as much attention to. If the scientific method should exert any influence on those potential influences which it excludes, then scientific control is compromised. For instance, if in seeking to establish how much energy is required to convert a kilogram of ice into steam, I find that I am warming the laboratory at the same time, then the procedure is fundamentally flawed. Energy is being lost. We therefore require what I shall call a 'double isolation' in science. Not only does science screen things out, but it needs to screen itself out from its environment.

This 'double isolation' has led historically to two major problems:

Firstly science, having screened itself out from the world, ultimately needs to 're-enter' the world. After the final, experimental stage of the scientific method, with the artificial conditions of the laboratory removed, science begins again to have an effect on the world. Yet little thought is given to what happens at this point. Science, when it re-enters the world, typically goes beyond anything that was formally taken into account in the scientific method. The disasters which have here occurred have led various thinkers to suppose that science is responsible for the ruination of our world. Stephen Hawking puts it simply: science may score an own goal.

Secondly, the isolation of science from the world has resulted in confusion as to how science really advances. The orthodox view is that science advances by and large through an inductive process: by making broad generalisations from specific observations. Yet consider that those specific observations have already followed the procedure of 'screening things out'. That is, such science has already minimised the effects of variables. It has excluded a great many possible relations in order to trace the relations which it does. There is a limit, therefore, to what can be achieved with previous scientific observations, as far as the tracing of relations is concerned.

Not only this. Experience tells us that scientific conjectures are not adequately explained by an inductive method. Here is an example from my own experience, dating from 2004. In that year I came up with a new principle for metal detecting, called coil coupled operation (CCO).  I was already familiar with the transformer coupled oscillator. This is governed by theory which, even in its full complexity, has little or no interest in outside influences on the oscillator. Now consider that such outside influences could include coins beneath the soil, which may change the frequency of the oscillator. In order to turn this into a metal detector, my mind needed to leap outside of the theory, to discover a principle which rested precisely on those influences which the present theory excluded.

Science, therefore, would seem to require not only the inductive method, but something far larger – namely intuition. Albert Einstein wrote, 'Knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.' This has important implications for the scientific method. The inductive method should be taught only as one possible means of doing science – and probably not the best way. Rather, the emphasis should be on a more frenetic and imaginative thinking. This is borne out, among other things, by the fact that many scientists of note were inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary in their pursuits – among them Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albert Einstein.

On the other hand, science should take account not only of the individual mechanisms which are isolated in controlled experiments. It should deliberately keep track of those mechanisms which are excluded from such control. These may potentially be infinite – yet it is crucial that there be an attempt to list them. No experiment is truly complete until this has been done, and no experimenter has been truly responsible without it. Inconsistently, today, some of our scientific pursuits are systematically regulated and supervised after the final, experimental stage of the scientific method – most notably in the areas of food and drugs – while vast areas remain ill-considered. The scientific method, far from being closed after four stages, should be an open-ended process.

This is intimately connected with the philosophy of scientific revolutions. In the process of 'screening things out', scientists' thinking is constrained. Yet a paradigm shift requires an eye for the wider canvas of relations. Therefore science, through the very scientific method, works to prevent paradigm shifts. However, as a science advances, the need for scientists to 'screen things out' becomes weaker. The work of scientific control has been done, and the ability to think creatively becomes stronger. Rather than paradigm shifts occurring through an accumulation of evidence, they occur where the scientific method is weakened – like a housewife, perhaps, who after kneading her bread, looks up to see the sun rise.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Death and History

Posted by Király István
Death lays the foundations of human history. However, this is only one aspect of death.

Death does not only illuminate the historically articulated human life, so to speak 'externally' — or more precisely, from its end, from an indefinite and aleatory, 'retrospective' point of view, as a foreign and external element — but it continuously interweaves, and what is more, grounds it in its most essential aspects.

To such an extent that history probably exists precisely because there is mortal human life — which is to say, a mortal human being who relates by his life to death, to his being-like-death and mortality — also in a being-like way, and mode of being-like. In other words because there is such a life to which death — its own death — in all respects lends weight, challenge, pressure — grip! — over itself and for itself, and by this a continuous and unavoidable possibility to undertake.

So, the non-human, non-Dasein*-like life which is 'finite', and as such is always born, disappears, passes away, comes into being, extinguishes, changes and evolves ... well, this life actually does not, and cannot have a history — just as the 'inorganic' regions of being have no history in fact, only in a metaphoric sense. Which of course does not mean that this life is not in motion, in change — that it is unrelated with time, or does not 'possess' time with all the processes and 'events', necessary or incidental — in the sense of their happening and references. These of course are also in touch with human history as challenges, meanings and possibilities — which is, when and if there is a questionable meaning or a question referring to meaning. So they have a story, but do not have a history — to the extent that this story of beings devoid of history only becomes — or only can become! — a history of being by history.

In accordance with this reasoning, history exists in fact because there is human death, because there are beings who relate to death — explicitly or implicitly — in and with their being, in and with their mode of being, in a being-like way — for whom death, their own death is not a mere givenness, but — by the way they relate to it — is, in fact, a possibility.

Moreover, it is a possibility which, by its own 'substantive' happening, is dying — precisely by its dying but always beyond it. It is a possibility which derives — and constitutes and structures, articulates, permeates, colours — all of their other modes and possibilities of being. In other words, it opens them up really and truly, structures them open in — and precisely because of — its finitude. And by this, it also lends to these possibilities a well-defined importance, open towards, and from, this finitude, which also leads in fact to the articulation of these modes of being.

If the various modes and regions of human existence — as well as their birth and changes in time — can prove that their very existence, meaning and change is utterly unthinkable and 'absurd' without death, or that death plays a direct or indirect role in their coming into being or changes, then it is also proved that death grounds, originates, and constitutes history in the … essential, ontological sense.

*Dasein is a German word which literally means 'being there' or 'presence'.

Király V. István is an Associate Professor in the Hungarian Department of Philosophy of the Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. This post is an extract selected by the Editors, and slightly adjusted for the purposes of the blog,  from his new book, Death and History.

Monday, 9 May 2016

What Is This Thing Called Beauty?

Posted by Keith Tidman
What is this thing called beauty? Our reflexive first thoughts might turn to people creating paintings, sculptures, dance choreographies, songs, novellas, and the like. Without the imposition of rules that prescribe how beauty should be observed and experienced, and that box it in by formalities and what is ‘correct’, this is the most simple, descriptive account that many of us might give.
More liberal reflection, however, eclipses our first thoughts, to arrive at a far broader, more nuanced description of our perception of beauty. Our aesthetic experiences might encompass images of galaxies and supernovas, deft turns of phrase, powerful metaphors, elegant equations, breakthrough technologies, humour, love, fantasies, theatre, and cultural rituals. Urban and rural landscapes, athletics, architecture, physical pleasure, animals and plants, calligraphy, oceans, and chemical formulas. Food presentation and taste, music, unbroken silence, geometry, alone time, learning, engineered structures, social engagement, serendipitous discovery, and the birthing of new life. Texture, colours, lines, beam of light, laughter, computer code, altruism, photography, imagination – and so much more.

We may turn to more specific examples. Beauty in the eye of the beholder, and rules-free, has included Einstein’s iconic equation e=mc2, the neuronal/synaptic activity of the brain, the three-dimensional structure of C6H12, the human genome, and the problem-solving of the Tianhe-2 supercomputer. Poignant lines from Shakespeare, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Mozart’s Missa da Requiem, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The aurora borealis, a breaching orca and its calf, Istanbul’s skyline at night, and the Lascaux cave paintings. Melt-in-the-mouth chocolate truffles, Provence in spring, Hohenzollern castle, the Grand Canyon catching sunlight, the vision of alternative world futures, the rich nuances of Indian and African languages – and more.

Since these represent descriptions of our experience of beauty, some will be commonly shared – in some cases globally – while others will be appreciated only through individuals’ cognitive lenses, or through culture’s interventionist hand. Yet others are regarded as examples of beauty by ‘insiders’, who are in one way or another habituated to them through educational training, life experiences, or other uniquely personal circumstances. Yet all these experiences are equally legitimate as descriptions of our perception of beauty – none ascends above the others.

What is it, then, that unites these myriad conceptions of beauty? We may now turn our look inward as it were, to our own personhood – which is epitomised by intelligent consciousness. The aesthetic content of beauty as we have described it rests on the individual: not only on the stimuli being experienced, but influenced by the medium between the source and ourselves, by our senses, and by our human cognition. And while it is yet little understood, our consciousness is key to the experience of aesthetics – although these ‘things’ exist independently, their beauty transitions from what is potential to what is real only by being observed and experienced. Through neuroscience – which is informed by physics, biology, and philosophy – consciousness is bound to play an ever-increasing role in our understanding of the cognitive processes associated with our experiences of beauty.

Meanwhile, ‘personhood’ must be folded, however imperfectly, into the explanation of aesthetic experience. Personhood is definable by a multiplicity of factors – the following being just a few among many: our awareness of our existence, our functionality both apart from and as part of a societal network, our accumulation of experiences from which to learn, our vision of alternative futures for which to strive – in fact, a menagerie of cognitive abilities, such as creative, innovative, imaginative, linguistic, computational, logical, and analytical skills. A religious or secular-humanistic framework for personal experience. As well as emotions, sensory messages that reflect our environment, unbridled and insatiable curiosity, awareness of the arrow of time, abstract questioning of meaning and purpose, intuition, and a sense of destiny.

And so we circle back to the beginning – now being able to correlate descriptions of our perception of beauty with our cognitive apparatus. An appreciation of the ‘elegance’ and precision of mathematics is required – in fact, of the universe – to see the beauty in e=mc2. An appreciation of early people’s linking of art and what they valued for survival is needed, to see the beauty of the Lascaux cave art. An appreciation of how music triggers the release of emotions and flights of imagination is required, to hear the soaring beauty of Mozart’s Missa da Requiem. An understanding of humankind’s magnificent complexity, with all its implications for leapfrogging natural evolution is needed, to see the beauty of the human genome – and so forth.

Everything, then, that ‘personhood’ entails feeds into and gives shape to what we consider sources of aesthetic experience – and how, precisely, we respond to those sources. And it is the magnificent breadth of what constitutes our personhood – encapsulated (in part) by the qualities described – which allows for, and makes sense of, the equally magnificent breadth of all that falls under the rubric of descriptive aesthetics.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Picture Post No.12: Critical Eyes

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Alice Seeley Harris, missionary, photographer and campaigner with a group of Congolese children, early 1900s.  Photo credit Anti-Slavery International
A group of Congolese children and Mrs. Seeley Harris all pose in a pyramid geometry and look towards us. In doing so, their bodies seem to animate a question and hand a voice to us. Perhaps this is why this photograph obviously from another age moves beyond being material evidence to become an inexorable happening. Our voices still try to formulate that question today.

These children embody the rich properties hidden into the soil they inhabit. The presence of the white woman accentuates this intuition being dressed in the middle of the children, as if ‘their clothes’ lay underneath the earth. What for these children is not essential, others might think of as indispensable.

The relation between these children and Mrs. Harris is critical. We might end up striving for the same cause but this is already a movement upon effects. When violence is related to law, justice cannot be achieved within a law preserved by violence. These children represent an entire population that got identified as a working force. Violently estranged from their culture, is it still possible to see out of one’s own eyes?

With more then a century in the middle between them and us, we are left with a riddle:

A century conceals more truth than a day, though every day carries with it a millennium of falsehoods.

Who are we then, today?

Monday, 25 April 2016

On ‘No Explanation’

A new poem by Chengde Chen which also marks the occasion of the first ‘birthday’ of the blog

Note from the Editors
Today marks the first birthday of the re-launched Philosophical Investigations (affectionately known as Pi)
In this first year of blogging, Pi has established itself alongside the top-rated philosophy blogs worldwide, which represents a modest popularity – and attracted strong ideas and good writing. Pi has been fairly unique in its emphasis, too – in two respects. Firstly, it has widened the compass of philosophy, including reflection on issues made through philosophical poems and images. Secondly, it has sought philosophy, rather than philosophers.
In its first year, Pi has featured essays by thinkers from a wide variety of backgrounds, among them a judge, a monk, a CEO, an architect, a police chief, and many more. This has resulted in a rich mix of ideas: for instance, that inequality has to do with replication, that the 'will to power' is found in the ordinary moments of life, that political science may be controlled by experiences not our own, that the purpose of reason is to flag contradictions, and that strength is found in shared weakness.
As a radical project – that aspires to be not merely philosophical, not merely political, nor even just 'educational' -  but to be entertaining – it is hoped that Pi will continue to growand provide an alternative, more democratic kind of blogging. 

‘No Explanation’

Not understanding a text, you ask the author to explain.
He refers to some other words, and you thank him.
But, if these words can deliver the meaning better,
shouldn’t they have been used in the first place?

If the author says, “Sorry, I don’t explain.
This, and only this, means what I mean,”
you may find it intolerably arrogant, but
why should what a clear expression is be polluted?

There are writings that are so proper and accurate
that only they themselves can represent themselves.
There are also needs for such precision, e.g.
putting a law in other words may deform justice.

Words can be precise because thoughts can.
Thoughts can be purified and purified like water.
When writing reaches the state of “no explanation”,
it is water that can’t be washed by water.

Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems. Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here 

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Thing-in-Itself

By Thomas Scarborough

Benjamin Lee Whorf, the American linguist, made a puzzling observation which, for no patent reason, has held our fascination for nearly eighty years. Whorf wrote it briefly, in simple language:
'Around a storage of what are called 'gasoline (petrol) drums', behavior will tend to a certain type, that is, great care will be exercised; while around a storage of what are called 'empty gasoline drums' it will tend to be different-careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about. Yet the 'empty' drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor.'
Whorf, I here suggest, had stumbled upon the core problem of the thing-in-itself, and with that, the core problem of the thinking of our entire Western civilisation. The interpretation of the thing-in-itself is not critical here.  It is sufficient to understand it most simply as any 'object of inquiry'. Let us begin at the beginning.

First, the Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that all knowledge may be subdivided into relations of ideas on the one hand, and matters of fact on the other. That is, one begins with a handful of facts (which includes objects), and these facts stand in a certain relation to one another.

This view has remained engraved on metaphysicians' minds ever since. Generations later, Bertrand Russell wrote that many philosophers, following Immanuel Kant, have maintained that relations are the work of the mind, and that things-in-themselves have no relations. While this is not to say exactly the same, the thought is not far from Hume's.

A marble is a thing. A house is a thing. Even gravity, ideology, taxonomy are things (we call them constructs), which may in turn be related to other things. In a sense, even a unicorn is a 'thing', although one is unlikely ever to find one. Of course, our 'things' may not be exactly the same as we perceive them – but the point will be clear.

Things-in-themselves are not, of course, facts. They first need to be involved in what we call truth conditions – which is, they need to be inserted into statements. Then one may affirm or deny such statements, which is an essential condition of facts. For example, we insert the thing 'marble' into a statement: 'A marble sinks' – or the thing 'unicorn': 'The Scots keep unicorns.'

On the surface of it, our world is filled with such facts: 'There's a car,' 'A bird has wings,' or 'The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.'

But there is a mistake. There are no things, there are no objects, and therefore there are no facts. Hume got it wrong, and so did every philosopher since. One finds only relations. The mind is incapable of comprehending anything else. No mind can ever settle on a 'thing' alone.

Someone might object: 'But this is a coffee cup, and that's a fact!' But is it really? Take away the table on which the coffee cup rests, and what does one have? One has a coffee cup which rests on nothing.  If we ever found such a thing, we would marvel that it exists.  One would have scientists queuing up at the door to see it.  Further, the table, on which the coffee cup rests, stands on the floor, and this in turn rests on the earth, and so on.

The same is true if we down-scale our thinking as it were. Supposing that we should say, 'This coffee cup has a handle.' The same applies. We have to have a mind for a whole world of relations to be able to speak of a handle.

We never worried about this much – before the publication of Samuel Johnson's great dictionary of 1755.  But since then, our 'things' have been defined, and they have been defined (if implicitly) as things-in-themselves. But this they are not, as we have seen.

This now promises to explain Benjamin Whorf's puzzlement over the dangerous way in which people went about with empty petrol drums, and our continuing fascination with the same today. We have come to see petrol drums today as things-in-themselves, without the obvious relations in which they are involved.

One might wonder at the possible significance of it all. Quite simply, when we speak of the world today, our language causes us to view it as people viewed Whorf's petrol drums, namely, as a profusion of things-in-themselves.  Yet we deal with things far more dangerous than petrol drums.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Is Political Science Science?

Leviathan frontispiece by Abraham Bosse
Posted by Bohdana Kurylo
Is political science science? The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes would seem to present us with a test case par excellence. Claiming that his most influential work, Leviathan, was through and through scientific, Hobbes wrote, ‘Science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another.’  His work, he judged, was founded upon ‘geometrical and physical first principles of matter and motion’, combined with logical deductions of the human sciences, psychological and political.
Through his scientific researches, Hobbes came to hold a pessimistic view of human nature, which he called the ‘state of nature’, the ‘Natural Condition of Mankind’: a ruinous state of conflict. Paradoxically, he considered that such conflict arose from equality and rationality. Possessing limited resources, a rational man would try to take as much as possible for himself. At the same time, others would need to do the same, as a defensive measure. The likeliest outcome was ‘war of every man against every man’, where law and justice have no place. Such a life, he famously wrote, would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.

Hobbes proposed, therefore, a contract between the people and the Sovereign, as a means of creating peace by imposing a single, sovereign rule. It is the fear of punishment, he wrote, that preserves peace and unity, and ties people to the ‘performance of their Covenants’. Following his logic, individuals are likely to reach the conclusion that a social contract is the best alternative to their natural condition, so surrendering their liberties and rights.

On the surface of it, Hobbes' logic seems compelling, his deductions persuasive, his arguments admirable. Nonetheless, for a number of reasons, it is questionable that his analysis of human nature was truly scientific.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Farmer Hogget, the Limited God

Posted by Eduardo Frajman

One beautiful autumn afternoon not too long ago, my daughters and I were coming home from an errand. They ran ahead of me, headed for our front yard to climb our knobby, twisted tree, or jump headfirst onto a leaf pile, or some other such wholesome activity that would add a tiny brick to the edifice of their innocent, golden childhoods. 

As I reached them I saw my eldest had stopped. She was prodding at something with her foot, nudging it back and forth. Though half-buried, I immediately recognized it for what it was. “What is it?,” my freckled-faced cherub asked. I saw her little sister step towards us curiously, an expectant smile on her face. The thing was roundish, about the size of a plum. Two blade-like stalks protruded out of one end. Amid the black dirt, I could make out patches of fur and a rigid, unseeing eye. “It’s a rock,” I said. My daughter shot me an incredulous, accusatory look as she wailed “Then why does it have ears?!”

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