Monday, 19 September 2016

A Philosophy of the Environment

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
In spite of its crucial importance today, in practice we have little operational guidance for defining policies, strategies, and outcome targets with respect to the natural environment. Above all, there are no agreed philosophical grounds for its preservation. Reactions to its destruction are fragmentary.
In times past, it was possible for every individual, or every family group, to be self-sustaining through all the cycles of nature. Today, we have advanced beyond all possibility of such a lifestyle, although pockets of our planet retain such ways of life. Today, the whole of nature needs to sustain the whole of humankind. This requires more than a parochial approach to the environment. It requires a global environmental ethics, and global environmental principles.

There is a pressing need today for a rational basis for a healthy, balanced relationship with the natural environment – for 'a broadly-based philosophy', in the words of the Scottish theologian and philosopher John MacQuarrie. While one cannot underestimate the effectiveness of reactive measures to protect or to heal the environment – on all levels, individual, organisational, and governmental – the philosophical underpinnings are sorely missed. Any substantial philosophy today should be able to present definitive criteria for dealing with the environment.

Various 'base principles' have been suggested:
• that nature enjoys a sacred status,
• that every life form has a special goal,
• that the natural environment is vital to our human flourishing,
• that it is essential for our economic progress.
Yet beyond all such considerations, it may be the very complexity of nature which promises a solution.

There is something which sets the environment apart, which requires a different treatment to all other ethical issues. There is no system (insofar as we may speak of a system at all) which is more complex than our natural environment. The environment presents us with an infinity of relations. We would need a mind (or a computer) larger than nature itself to understand it. We may say therefore that it is 'beyond the condition of things'. It is beyond reducing, controlling, or bringing into the condition of things. It is unconditional.

The natural environment is the ultimate zone, in which a vast tissue of influences cannot be reduced. It is so much more than a sphere which merely should be 'protected'. It is sacred. It is tabu. A reductionistic approach to nature does not apply.

Not only this. For want of a concept as to how nature ought to be – since we cannot possibly possess such knowledge – we cannot say that it should be this way or that. 'Is' and 'ought' vanish here. It is in a sacred space even beyond the realm of ethics. With respect to nature, we cannot give and we cannot take, we can only receive. In fact nature stands as a vast and all-encompassing symbol to teach us the limitations of human reason.

On the basis of a belief in a sacred environment there is a principled way forward. The environment – both animate and inanimate – is not merely an object of wonder and awe, nor is it sentimentally sacred. Its sacredness is of biblical proportions: a sacredness which means that it stands under 'the ban'. Whatever the value of nature may be – whatever its stores, whatever its appeal – it must not be touched. The only way forward is to treat it on the basis that it is both off-limits and hands-off, and this is unconditional. It is non-negotiable.

Our own simple, built environment is of course ensconced in the natural environment. Of necessity, we disturb the environment, because we are a part of it. How then should it be possible for nature to be off-limits today, in our (post) modern world?

The notion of such separation is not merely a wistful one. There are large areas today which we do keep off-limits: contaminated areas, for instance, military zones, and diamond areas. These are as good as sacrosanct – and yet the environment seems by comparison to be treated with ambivalence. In fact in times past, the natural environment was indeed thought to be sacred – in some cases more valuable than the life of one who desecrated it.

Just a hundred years ago, nature did not need any assistance from humanity. That is, in our very recent past, we knew a world in which nature was allowed to be nature, and did not need human cosseting or monitoring. The deliberate, nation-wide, even global protection of the natural environment through human custodians is a comparatively recent development.

In short, a separation between the natural and the built environments should be – and has to be – a realistic goal. This goal will be achieved when the equilibrium of the environment is maintained in every part without human intervention – or rather, its dynamic equilibrium is maintained over all its various cycles. Since, however, nature is beyond the condition of things, this must be a self-sustaining dynamic equilibrium, without the influence of human custodians.
'Our immediate environment is not nature as formerly, but organisation. But this immunity from nature produces a new crop of dangers, which is the very organisation.' —Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Six Imperatives for Saving Syria?

Posted by Keith Tidman
With many powers exercising their claims in Syria—and demonising one another—the conflict long ago morphed from a civil war to a Hobbesian battleground for international self-interests. And as Thomas Hobbes warned, life for many in Syria is 'nasty, brutish, and short'. 
The dynamics have turned toward ever-more bloodshed, with rivals—kindled by neighbouring and remote states alike—entangled in a brutal, interventionist struggle for preeminence. The outcomes have included the civilian casualties, families sundered, and an outpouring of millions of refugees funneling into other countries, near and far. The economic and security stressors are being felt in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere: exacerbating localised conflicts, rendering borders porous, spurring radicalisation, and destablising social order.

The war in Syria continues to roil. Stunning images of dazed, blooded children pulled barely alive from the rubble following air strikes have virally circumnavigated the world time and again. Eyes gazing upon such stark images have welled up. Outrage has been stoked. So, five years since the carnage began, and more than quarter of a million deaths later, what—in an admittedly ideal world—are the imperatives for Syria? From a philosophical vantage point, there are at least six—both strategic and moral.
Imperative One - is for the powers exercising the greatest leverage—including Iran, Lebanon, the Gulf coast states, Russia, Western Europe, the United States—to agree to bring the worst of the fighting and cyclical escalation to an end. This imperative calls not for yet another disingenuous, short-lived ceasefire in an ongoing series. Rather, without key factions fueling the fighting—with money, arms, logistical support, fresh foreign fighters, tactical direction, leadership on the battlefield, and the like—the flames will scale back to a more manageable intensity. That, in turn, will feed oxygen to efforts not only to shift the course of events in the towns but more crucially to hammer out a longer-lasting, sustainable solution.

Imperative Two -  is to disentangle the flailing limbs of the rival groups that have spent the last half-decade killing each other and pursuing gains in territory and influence—where one nation’s ‘unsavory’ antagonist is another nation’s ally. The message must be that no one’s interests have any hope of prevailing, permanently, in today’s unremitting carnage. Messaging, though necessary, isn’t sufficient, however. Those countries whose proxies are on the front lines must retract their own talons while also reining in their surrogates. Proxy fighting—the worst of a raging hot war, along with a Mideast cold war of hegemons ham-fistedly competing over ideas and power—is cruel cynicism.

Imperative Three - is for power centres like the United Nations, the Arab League, the United States, Russia, and the European Union, as well as nongovernmental organizations like Médicin Sans Frontières and the Red Crescent, to mobilise in order to inject humanitarian relief into Syria. That means doctors, medicine, food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities—including expertise—to allow for at least rudimentarily livable conditions and some semblance of normalcy, as well as to pave the way for more-robust civil affairs. Essential will be countries and organisations avoiding working at cross-purposes—all the while staying the course with sustainable, not just episodic, infusions of resources. With visibly improving conditions will come the provision in shortest supply: hope.

Imperative Four - is for these same power centres not just to arrange for rival groups to ‘stake their flag’ and settle in place, but to disgorge from Syria those non-native elements—foreign interlopers—that embarked on pursuing their own imperial gains at the Syrian people’s expense. The sponsors of these groups—Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, the Kurds, Gulf Cooperation Council members, Russia, United States, and others—must operate on the basis that ideology, tribalism, sectarianism, spheres of influence, imperialism are not zero sum and, moreover, must not come at the Syrian population’s expense.

Imperative Five -  is for the global community to begin the massive undertaking of repairing what now lies as rubble. Those repairs to infrastructure—buildings, utilities, services—will require resources that can be met only through collective action. Continued fighting will disincline countries from contributing to the kitty, so first achieving imperative number one is essential. ‘Aid fatigue’ will set in if infrastructural fixes get protracted, if there’s unmitigated corruption, and if gains are destroyed—leading to disenchantment and the mission petering out. Reconstitution of the country will therefore have to happen on a grand scale, with all aware of the consequences of diminishing commitment and exigencies at home and abroad competing for attention. One country’s aid will likely provide a fillip to others, leading to a critical mass of support.

Imperative Six - is to settle on a system of governance for Syria, including leadership. The model doesn’t have to be overtly liberal democracy. Rather, some variant of a ‘benign (enlightened) autocracy’ may suffice, at least in the immediate term, with parties pledging to work toward an enduring system to serve the population’s interests. The eventual system will require a broad-brush makeover: political representation, public debate, formal social contract, human rights, policymaking (domestic, foreign), resource management, rule of law, the environment, civil society, institutional formation . . . the gamut.
The overarching need, however, is actionable ends to set history ‘right’. As Confucius, who himself lived in a time of wars, observed, 'To see the right and not to do it is cowardice.' At the very least, to see the right and not to do it is moral bankruptcy. To see the right and not to do it is a corruption of the obligation of nations to set people’s welfare right—an endeavour paradoxically both mundane and noble. To see the right and not to do it is a corruption of the foundational expectation of Syrian families to go about their lives in the absence of tyranny. Idealism, perhaps—but scaling back the 'continued fear and danger of violent death', described by Hobbes, should be at the core of Syrians’ manifest destiny.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Picture Post #16: Life Behind the Pile of Petrol Cans

'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

Azad Nanakeli 2011, Arbil, Kurdistan-Iraq
A tailor shop that is situated behind a pile of petrol cans. An image that offers a certain brutality about human life – yet in this harshness, but also lightness, man survives. In such ‘idiosyncratic sympathies’ is hidden our intimacy – and hence, similarity. How violent is it to earn one's daily bread out of sight of the street, and behind a symbol of capitalism and war and power?

Virtue will always raise its flags of dependence upon what it believes. Reducing intimacy to something impersonal in cultural terms, yet personal in providing a subjective state within which is created a distinct worldview. The subtlety between intimacy and brutality can then pass by unnoticed, or be easily exchanged, one with the other.

Yet human beings are blessed with something called imagination. And without imagination, intimacy cannot exist. Strangely, the most common scenes reflect our trouble with imagination. As if the common has very little value in regard. We let comparisons decree our personal preferences – and in so doing, not only do we refuse to imagine ourselves, but we refuse to imagine others. We refuse intimacy with the world.

Imagination evokes thinking, even though most thinking occurs within the already imagined. Imagination reveals a problem as to how we make the world intelligible. In this way, daily life offers us a myriad stream of common, unanticipated images like this, scenes in which a host of uncommon things can be traced.

Monday, 29 August 2016

How the Body Keeps Human Nature in Check

Posted by Eugene Alper
Philosophers have always treated human nature with suspicion. From Plato's legend of the ring of Gyges to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the belief has been that human nature is fundamentally bad, and that if people could get away with it, they'd rather steal, rape, rob, and kill.
Because of this, one theory goes, people enter into a social contract. To avoid mutual destruction by their raging selves, they give up some of their freedom in exchange for security. The social contract theory, as one example of political philosophising, sounds reasonable. But is the premise correct? Is human nature really fundamentally bad?

It seems to me that however destructive human nature can be in theory—indeed, if we assume that man has free will, then he is capable of committing anything—in real life, man's own body, its vulnerabilities and frequent needs, forces him to co-operate with others rather than try to destroy them.

In real life, we do not think about this much; rather, we co-operate with others by habit instilled in us from childhood. We are trained to behave decently by our own family. Our parents do not want aggressive and unruly creatures bothering them, so for their own comfort they train us to be nice. And we continue to be so throughout life—and those who are not, as we often find out, may not have had that early socialising experience.

But let us pretend that there was no socialising milieu in one's childhood. Let us pretend that somehow a man did not realise that his mother was his only source of food and comfort, and he did not learn to please her. And let us pretend that it did not occur to him later in life that other people were useful to him too, and somehow he failed to master the skill of ingratiating himself with them in order to obtain what he needed. Let us pretend that, instead, the man was dropped from the sky into the world, not knowing anything at all about how it operated. Even then, it is my argument, he would be forced rather quickly to be nice rather than bellicose.

Dropped into the world, the man would promptly discover that his body needs to be fed every four hours and go to sleep every sixteen. His skin, he would notice, is sensitive to cold, heat, and any contact with sharp, hard, or heavy objects, especially if the contact is made at speed. Even walking barefoot, he would observe, can be painful. He would find that the food his body demands so often is not readily available, and to fight for it with other people and animals a few times a day is painful to the skin. It is also risky to try to steal it, for getting away is difficult with the skin being so sensitive. Every night he would learn how physically complicated it is to find a safe shelter to hide from those he might have angered during the day. With his body getting hurt so easily and tired so quickly, he would calculate that it is more energy-efficient to try to engage others in a peaceful exchange, where he would trade for his food something of value to them: a thing he might have, a service he might perform, even a promise he might fulfill in the future.

Even if he were bigger and stronger than other men around him, he would understand that he could not be big and strong twenty-four hours a day. For some eight hours—a third of each day on this planet—he would be as defenseless as a baby, and need to have someone he could trust next to him. Even the meanest tyrant with the worst human nature could not be mean under these circumstances all the time. The vulnerability of his own body at night and its dependence on non-poisonous food during the day would make him behave decently—at the very least to his closest circle.

This is what the man dropped from the sky would discover: however base and wild he might wish to be, his needy body keeps him in check. And philosophy, as fearful as it is of human nature, should acknowledge that it has an ally. The body is not a millstone to which the wing-flipping free will is oh-so-regrettably shackled, but a sensitive vessel playing a noble role. 'Don't be too cocky,' says the body to the free will trapped inside, 'or we will both get hurt.'

Monday, 22 August 2016

Revisiting Anselm's Ontological Argument

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

On the surface of it, Anselm's ontological argument seems to be absurd: One can think of nothing greater than God, therefore God exists. And yet our fascination with Anselm endures. What is this strange attraction?

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) was a medieval philosopher and theologian, who put forward the celebrated ontological argument for the existence of God. This has been discussed by many of the 'big names' in philosophy, including René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – and more recently by Charles Hartshorne, Karl Barth, and Alvin Plantinga, among others.

What is remarkable about Anselm's argument is that, while it would seem to have been refuted time and time again – beginning with Gaunilo of Marmoutiers in 1078 – it just keeps on bouncing back.

I propose that we may find an explanation for this abiding fascination with Anselm, if we assume (as was indeed the case) that Anselm did not have access to the postmodern language of epistemology – in particular, to the nonfoundationalism which we know today. What might his argument have looked like if he had?

But first, for the sake of completeness, the core of Anselm's original ontological argument, translated by Scott Moore:

Even the fool is compelled to grant that something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought.

And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater.

We shall pass over the detail of previous historical discussion, as this is not of special importance here. What is indeed important is just a single feature of Anselm's argument – namely, the word 'greater'. What does Anselm refer to with this word? A supreme being? A perfect being? A necessary being? What is he thinking is 'greater'?

The philosophy writer Chirag Mehta asks: what is the great-making property? Or more to the point, the linguist Michael Geis notes that adjectives such as 'greater' are normally relativised to some reference class. To put it simply, adjectives typically refer to something definite. But where is Anselm's reference class? It isn't there.

Supposing that we take a leap of intuition. Aristotle used the Greek word ἀξίουν (that which is worthy) to describe axioms. We know, too, that Anselm was well familiar with Aristotle's work. ἀξίουν is derived from the word ἄξιος (worth, or worthy), and it means 'a statement or proposition on which an abstractly defined structure is based'. 

Now let us suppose that Anselm intended to speak of something more worthy than which cannot be thought – in the sense of the ultimate Axiom – the Axiom which lies beneath all axioms: that Axiom which is 'more worthy' than all others. In keeping with this, let us drop Aristotle's word ἀξίουν into Anselm's work, so replacing Anselm's adjective 'greater':

Even the fool is compelled to grant that something more ἀξίουν (axiomatic) than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought.

And certainly that more ἀξίουν (axiomatic) than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is more ἀξίουν (axiomatic).

It will be seen that the replacement works. Perhaps therefore Anselm did not intend (seemingly absurdly) that one cannot conceive of anything greater than God. Perhaps he intended that God is the ἀξίουν beneath all axioms. Even if this was not his intention, it would seem to deliver an ontological argument.

With the rising tide of nonfoundationalism today, axioms are in trouble. We need foundations, yet we do not find them. The theologian Deane Galbraith notes that the problem today is not merely that our axioms are ungrounded, but that they are now 'grounded arbitrarily'. This implies, too, that we find ourselves in a great personal and social predicament.

There has to be an ἀξίουν, and it has to be an ἀξίουν which is more worthy than all others. How then might God represent that ἀξίουν? This lies beyond the scope of this simple post. Yet if this is what Anselm should have intended – namely, that we are in desperate need of the ultimate Axiom, then his argument may begin to make eminent sense.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Free Will: Has Philosophy Been Eclipsed by Neuroscience?

Norton Junction. With acknowledgement to Adrian the Rock
By Keith Tidman
We make decisions before we are consciously aware of making them. These are the findings of the latest neuroscientific research. Has neuroscience therefore eclipsed philosophy? Has it taken the lead? Does philosophy have anything left to say?
In a much-publicised experiment, a neuroscientist placed people into a ‘functional magnetic resonance imaging’ (fMRI) machine. The aim was to observe brain activity as test subjects performed an activity. The neuroscientist instructed the subjects to press a button either with their right hand or their left hand – but to pay close attention to when they took the decision as to which hand to use. The results surprised the worlds of both philosophy and neuroscience. The scanner revealed brain activity—the brain unconsciously deciding to press the button—a remarkable seven seconds before the test subjects consciously opted to press it. That is, the subjects’ brains committed to decisions before the subjects became aware of making them.

Why should this be important? Why does it matter?

We assume that free will is fundamental to our humanity. Assumptions about free will—conscious agency—engage people on pragmatic levels. In fact those assumptions are the keystone for society’s notions of responsibility. Codes of morality and law necessarily rest—rightly or wrongly—on free will’s existence. Institutions, from government bodies to systems of justice to religions, are built on that keystone. In the absence of an alternative model that ensures order in society, such rules-based institutions hold people accountable for their actions. Human conduct is judged, and responses—praise and reward, or condemnation and punishment—are rendered accordingly. Society assumes that a person may be held responsible only if that person is a ‘morally responsible agent’, in conscious, intentional control of behaviour.

The cautious conclusion to the fMRI experiment was that consciousness may play no role in what a person decides. Other neuroscientists concur in this, based on the results of different tests. But are our conclusions too hasty? Are the results ironclad?

In the context of conscious control, what does the fMRI test really tell us about free will? Is free will an illusion, a tricked brain, misled intuition—and even just a convenience for society to function? The question typically appears something like this: “At the moment a person decides, could she willingly and freely have decided otherwise?” And if we do not enjoy unbridled (‘libertarian’) free will, do we at least have contingent free will? If free will is an illusion, is that so for only those choices made hastily and with minimal thought? Or does free will describe all our decisions? Philosophers have grappled with free will for millennia, of course. But the role of neuroscience in this arena is more recent—and arguably indispensable. This dual track of philosophers and neuroscientists makes it necessary to delineate what unique competencies each field brings to free will. But what are they? And do they each have a role?

By and large, both philosophers and neuroscientists today acknowledge the  cause-and-effect nature of brain activity (the physics, chemistry, biology) and decisions—mind-brain dualism long since having been discarded. Yet our considerations do not end here.

Philosophers, for their part, collaborating with psychologists and anthropologists and others, bring a deep understanding of human behavior. This understanding exists in the context of the roles of institutions and culture in society, informing the ways people make decisions, including whether freely or mechanistically. Philosophers also contribute an understanding of the centuries-long history of conceptualising free will and its alternatives, especially how some of the most brilliant minds have described and debated free will and determinism and the concepts’ variants. This process includes placing those historical notions of free will to the litmus test of analytical logic, to assess soundness. All this vitally informs the science—outside the standard domain of scientists—to ensure that the science remains conceptually and historically grounded.

For their part, neuroscientists, collaborating with physicists and biologists, structure hypotheses and bring increasingly sophisticated technologies and rigorous methodologies to understand cognitive brain function. They correlate those functions to the brain as it makes a decision and the person subsequently is aware of the decision. The aim is to explore—tangibly record and measure through technology—what is happening at the unconscious and conscious levels, and to do so involving more complex decision-making. Independent scientists must duplicate test results. For neuroscientists, this unique framing of the free will-versus-determinism puzzle takes into account diverse factors.  These include the neurons and synapses firing in different regions of the brain, perceptions of reality, people’s genetic makeup, the environment influencing genes’ expression (epigenetics), psychological states, and others. How these factors bear on outcomes of science’s take on free will remains to be explored.

Allowing for the distinctly separate competencies of philosophers and neuroscientists, tackling free choice can best be accomplished jointly: defining the problem, examining alternative models, conjuring hypotheses, developing methods, describing initial conditions, teasing out empirical data, interpreting results. Wherein, it seems, lies the best hope of resolving the free-will debate. Philosophy is far from eclipsed.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Nothing: A Hungarian Etymology

'Landing', 2013. Grateful acknowledgement to Sadradeen Ameen
Posted by Király V. István
In its primary – and abstract – appearance, nothing is precisely 'that' 'which' it is not. However, its word is still there in the words of most languages (for we cannot know all). Here we explore its primary meaning in Hungarian.
The Hungarian word for nothing, 'semmi' is a compound of the conjunction 'sem' (nor) and the personal pronoun 'mi' (we). The negative 'sem' expresses 'nor here' (sem itt), 'nor there' (sem ott), 'nor then' (sem akkor), 'nor me' (sem én), 'nor him or her' (sem ő), etc. That is: I or we have searched everywhere, yet I or we have found nothing, nowhere, never.

However much we think about it: the not to which the 'sem' sends is not
the negating 'Not', nor the depriving 'Not' that Heidegger revealed in his analysis of 'das Nichts'. The Not in the 'sem' is a searching Not! It says, in fact, that searching, we have not found. By this, it says that the way we met, faced,
and confronted the Not is actually a search. Thus the 'sem' places the negation in the mode of search, and the search into the mode of Not (that is, negation).

What does all this mean in its essence? Firstly, it means that, although the 'sem' is indeed a kind of search, which 'flows into' the Not, still, as a search, it
always distinguishes itself from the not-s it faces and encounters. For searching is never simply a repeated question, nor the repetition of a question, but a question carried around. Therefore the 'sem' is always about more than the tension between the question and the negative answer given to it. For the negation itself – the Not – is placed into the mode of search! And conversely.

Therefore the 'sem' never negates the searching itself – only places and fixes it in its deficient modes. Those in which it 'does not find' in any direction. This way, the 'sem' charges, emphasizes, and outlines the Not, but also stimulates the search, until the exhaustion of its final emptiness. Therefore the contextually experienced Not – that is, the 'sem' – is actually nothing but an endless deficiency of an emptied, exhausted, yet not suspended search.

This ensures, on the one hand, the stability of the 'sem', which is inclined to
hermetically close up within itself – while on the other hand it also ensures an inner impulse for the search which, emanating from it, continues to push it to its emptiness.

And it is in the horizon of this emanating impulse that the 'sem' merges with the pronoun 'mi', in the Hungarian name for nothing. The 'mi' in Hungarian is at the same time an interrogative pronoun and the first person plural personal pronoun. Whether or not this phonetic identity is a 'coincidence', it conceals important speculative possibilities which should not be overlooked. For the 'Mi' pronoun, with the 'Sem' negative, always says that it is 'we' (Mi) who questioningly search, but find 'nothing' (semmi).

Merged in their common space, the 'sem' and the 'mi' signify that the questioners, in the grip of the plurality of their searching questions, facing the meaning of the 'semmi', only arrived at, and ran into the not, the negation.

In the space of its articulation the Hungarian word of the nothing offers a
deeper and more articulated consideration of what it 'expresses', fixing not only the search and its – deficient – modes, but also the fact that it is always we who search and question, even if we cannot find ourselves in 'that', in the Nothing. That is to say, the Nothing – in one of its meanings – is precisely our strangeness, foreignness, and unusualness, which belongs to our own self – and therefore all our attempts to eliminate it from our existence will always be superfluous.

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 adjusted for Pi, from his bilingual Hungarian-English Philosophy of The Names of the Nothing.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Have We Normalised Oppression?

Posted by Bohdana Kurylo
There are forms of oppression and domination, wrote Michel Foucault, which become invisible – the new normal. Have we normalised oppression today? Are we even aware of it any more?
In the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault drew his readers’ attention to the workings of power on the level of one’s sexuality and desire, as both an example and a metaphor of all power relations. He debunked the idea that sex is the locus of the truest form of the self. In fact, this idea turns out to be an invisible mechanism of control. As Foucault put it, it is ‘a new mode of investment which presents itself no longer in the form of control by repression but that of control by stimulation’. In turn, the ‘stimulation’ cannot do without sex being regulated and monitored, to effectively manage the populace. Still, modern control would not be effective without control being exerted by individuals over themselves, however unknowingly. And the more self-governing our self becomes, the more relevant this becomes.

As such, there is a clear difference between the repressive methods used by the Soviet state to regulate society and the self-discipline of the modern sexually ‘liberated’ generation. The latter has willingly measured and categorised itself through all-encompassing examination and normalisation through beauty standards, nudity and endless discourses on sex. A confessing animal, modern man has made, perhaps, the most intimate part of his self available for mass surveillance. The force of surveillance has significantly increased with the rise of social media, the efficacy of which is not inferior to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: its prisoners are close, yet in isolation from each other; perfectly visible for the watchers, yet unable to see them. In short, the soul is governed by aligning new norms with individual desires and pleasures.

Nevertheless, it is questionable whether such control necessarily has negative implications, as in the case of conventional forms of oppression and domination. It is indeed a hybrid power that does not oppose one’s wishes, but in fact creates them. On the surface of it, Foucault himself seems to take a neutral stance in relation to the new style of governance, rejecting the idea that society can exist without power relations. However, his emphasis on the effects of normalisation on the individual – which ‘attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognise’ – reveals a negative attitude. It seems that Foucault confronted the issue of modern governance because of his urge to go beyond the existing perceptions of the self. Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘will to power’ – an ‘attempt to overcome, to bring to oneself, to incorporate’ – may well explain it. It is precisely this ‘instinct for freedom’ that would lead Foucault’s subject to want to become a master in playing these games of power with the strongest possible protection against the abuse of power.

At this point, the connection between freedom and ethics unfolds. Foucault pronounced the nature of freedom to be ethical in itself: ‘Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics’. Yet, he wondered whether it makes sense to say ‘let’s liberate our sexuality’, for the problem of freedom is much more ethical than the rhetoric about desires and pleasures. Thus, it is important, once again to debunk the myth that sexual liberation – or any liberation – is equal to freedom. Indeed, is liberation only about genitals and not about conscience, dignity and self-reflection? Freedom is impossible without self-reflection and the ‘care of the self’. Hence, as ‘taking care of oneself requires knowing oneself’, freedom from imposed knowledge and control becomes a major argument for resistance against modern power.

A bigger question, however, is whether resistance is possible – and here, Foucault led his readers into the labyrinth of philosophical paradoxes. The problem is that the relationship between the self and power is mutually determining. Paradoxically, as the self has essentially become the locus of power today, humans face the challenge of resisting themselves. As a result, the individual is constituted both through the practices of subjection and liberation. Although a fully autonomous self is impossible, those who dare to follow their instinct for freedom inevitably have to overcome these paradoxes on the path of the never-ending process of self-cultivation. As an option, Foucault proposed shaping individual subjectivity through the force of creativity, virtually transforming everyone’s life into a work of art. Metaphorically, ‘why should the lamp or the house be an art object but not our life?’

The questions remain: Who exercises power? Who makes decisions for me? Foucault referred to the notion of ‘governmentality’ to describe modern political reason. Its main characteristic is societies in which governance follows the principle of ‘enterprise’, in which the self is self-sustainable and self-governing, ensuring higher productivity. This is a world in which discipline and control have been internalised by the individuals themselves.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Sea-Bird’s Lament

Posted by Rorine Tioti *

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Sunset at Sea 1879.

Over the tree tops, in the branches
Is my home sweet home
Now cut and destroyed
For your Home Sweet Home
I fly over the horizon to the setting sun
To nowhere, to find a new home

* Rorine Tioti is a citizen of Kiribati.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Picture Post No. 15: Boulevard du Temple

'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

Boulevard du Temple, by Daguerre

This is one of those 'first ever...' photos- so a little history story could be told. But more than that, and unlike most of the early images,  it has quite an aesthetic. And the two stick figures in the foreground add a certain something human too... Are they children playing?

The Frenchified nature of the town is given by those shop awnings and ordered lines of trees - as well as perhaps more obscurely, by the slope of the roofs.

On closer inspection, the figures turn out to be adults, and one is offering his boot via an extended leg to the other, who presumably is a shoe-shine boy. Thus, the image captures in a frozen moment of time, a slightly sourer taste of social inequality.

It is a daguerrotype, an image recorded on a sheet of copper coated with silver and developed by mercury fumes, taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (after whom the process was named). The exact date of the photo is not known, but it is thought to be either 1838 or 1839.

One contemporary photographer says too that the matchstick figures are the first human beings to be photographed*, adding:
‘Their simple, everyday transaction has made them immortal.’
Following on from the artistic era of Romanticism, photography fitted well the artist's needs to express the real and natural. But above all, this mechanical medium seemed to fit the industrial revolution and the need for man to fix himself into particular roles.

Because, indeed, another quality of the image is that there are only these two figures, locked forever in their unequal relationship. What should have been a bustling boulevard is strangely deserted. This appearance is, however, also illusory: the first daguerrotypes took some minutes (10 to 15) to fix on the plate, and so all that moves is removed... moving objects, like coaches or even pedestrians, would leave little or no trace. They are the ghosts of early photography.

*Others would argue the point, including earlier images by Daguerre himself such as Foyer au Pont-Neuf, but if there are literally other figures to be found, none are as striking and problematic as these two.

Just fancy that! Hardly any daguerrotypes have survived, but this one was still being lovingly preserved as late as 1974 in a museum. At that point, however, someone decided to ‘clean’ the tatty old silver plated surface, wiping the delicate image away in a moment ...

Monday, 25 July 2016

Poetry: BREXIT and 9/11

The City of London. Although some financiers played  a key role in the
LEAVE campaign, others fear loss of access to lucrative European markets

So Why Does BREXIT* Remind Me of 9/11?

 A poem by Chengde Chen 

Why does BREXIT remind me of 9/11?
Because the exit is like a suicide attack.
Britain, like a plane hijacked by democracy,
With her island-shaped spirit and body,
Dives into her interdependent neighbour,
Regardless of the fatal consequences of
Isolation, recession, and dismemberment…

If an action of suicide bombing
Is to perish together with the enemy,
Brexit is to do so with friends!
But, world-shaking as it is, this isn’t 9/11 yet.
The “explosion” detonated by the referendum,
is time-consuming, procedural, and reversible.

If Britain regrets the decision, she can re-vote.
Some would cry “respecting democracy”, but
Should we democrats be so “respected”
That we’re not allowed to change our mind –
But must jump off the cliff-edge mistakenly-reached?

A U-turn would, of course, not be glorious, but
Should the UK trade her existence for pride?
Where would the pride stay, anyway?
If we must make the mistake into a full disaster,
Wouldn't democracy look crazier than al-Qaeda?

* Editorial note. 'BREXIT' is the term used to signify the process of withdrawal from the European Union by the United Kingdom, a long-standing aim of both the extreme left and right in English politics, if rather less so in other parts of the United Kingdom.

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

Monday, 18 July 2016

Is 'Christian Healing' a Contradiction in Terms?

The Sick Child, by Edvard Munch
Posted by István Király V.
At the heart of the Christian faith and thinking about human illness lies a contradiction. If illness is accepted as a punishment from God, then 'Christian healing' and 'Christian medicine' resists the will of God – alternatively, compromises one's faith in his purposes.
The idea of the divine origin of illnesses, and their perception as a divine punishment for the sins of human beings dates back much before Christianity. It was shared for instance by Hebrews and Mesopotamians. However, this was not a hindrance for them – as it was, and is, in Christianity – to relate to diseases not merely, and not primarily with supplication by prayers and hoping for miracles in the expectation of healing, but in an actively medical way, namely with their empirical observation, interpretation and explanation, and with an attitude aiming at their prevention and healing.

For Christian faith and thinking, human illnesses are primarily the results and consequences of original sin, as well as the 'blows' of its original punishment and other, also divine, punishments associated with it, such as 'historical' punishments beyond the expulsion from paradise.

Secondarily, however, from a Christian 'point of view', illnesses are the punishments of yet another kind of divine sin of personal concern, and as such, in fact external to man, unappealable, unexplainable, and actually unforeseeable, and, while purportedly determinate, not clearly identifiable. These 'blows' are not meant to smite the human race in general, but specifically individual people, and of course, are exclusively designated to make them accept divine punishment.

Consequently, if we give deeper thought to the matter, then it emerges as highly problematic whether the naturally human-medical efforts of healing can indeed be considered as human activities worthy of divine contentment and respect. They are carried out, namely, as confrontation with 'illnesses' which are identified with all sorts of divine punishments in 'correspondence' with divine orders and intentions. Or, on the contrary, they should be considered a threatening insight into ever newer, very much determined sin, connected to, and branching further from, the original sin – that is to say, knowledge.

Paradoxically, Western science, purportedly, and also actually 'devoid of ethics', is precisely a product of Christianity – since, if the knowledge of the distinctions between good and evil, true and false, beautiful and ugly is considered and treated exactly as the original sin of mankind, then cognition and systematic knowledge, constitutive and indispensable for human life, can only be cultivated with a 'bad consciousness', and mostly with the ignorance of this 'ethics'.

And thus medicine and medical doctors were prosecuted during the Christian Middle Ages with special theological and ecclesiastical concern (and also afterwards, in fact to this day compared even to other sciences and scholars). Because medicine – as a search for knowledge and knowledge – is not only a further immersion into the original sin, like any other historically articulated science, but, more than that – as healing! – it comes into a direct confrontation with that indefinable, yet 'concrete' divine decision and will which punishes that particular person (!) with that particular disease.

While, of course, the cases of healing sometimes occurring nevertheless could only be regarded in fact from a consistently Christian viewpoint as miracles of divine grace. It is therefore this grace and only its penitent reception that, from a 'Christian point of view', an ill person, as well as his / her caretaker, can actually strive, urge, and hope for.

So it is no wonder, historically speaking, that the medieval, and especially early medieval meaning of medico had so much shifted towards the meaning of curo – namely an indeed 'positive' and sui generis Christian attitude and obligation, the nursing and attendance of the weak, the poor, and the sick - that it no longer means in fact 'healing' in an (ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Hebrew, etc.) medical sense, but rather the caretaking of the sick and the suffering. Obviously, in the midst of a penitent supplication, and in the desperate hope of 'healing' as a miracle-like divine mercy.

The case is probably the same with Jesus, considered the son of God. Because, in a real and explicit medical sense – that is, in the sense of the medical conception, knowledge, and skills of his age, culture, and environment – he was not really a healer, but he only made all sorts of miracles connected (also) to illnesses.

This illustrates those deep ruptures which Christianity meant and represented in relation to – recte: against and opposed to – e.g. ancient Greek and Roman traditions, where truth was always tried to be knowingly and continuously thought and kept together with good and beautiful, as the noblest human modes of being. 

Strictly considering the relation of Christianity to illness – which actually seriously and decisively influenced two millennia – we must ultimately make it clear that, since illness, according to Christianity, is considered in its origin, source, nature, and purpose one of the main types of divine punishment for human sins, the liberation from these sins – recte, healing itself, or the recovery obtained in its historically articulated efforts – cannot actually and really be considered a blessed task of human, let us say, medical involvement (that is to say, one articulated in the sense of actual, all-time therapy, carried out with knowledge and skills).

Instead, it can only be perceived as a result and consequence of the 'workings' of divine grace, achieved by purportedly always exceptional, pious miracles. Consequently, the expression 'Christian medicine' in the sense of healing or therapy – because it is separated from God's purposes – is none other in fact than a mere contradictio in terminis, an absurdity.

'Yet in his disease he sought not to the Lord
but to the physicians.' II Chronicles 16:12.

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 Pi, from his bilingual Hungarian-English Philosophy of Human Illness, which focuses on specific human reporting. Free downloads are available at Illness a Possibility of the Living Being or Illness a Possibility of the Living Being.

Monday, 11 July 2016

How Shall We Re-establish Ethics in Our Time?

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
We have nothing to show today, writes Simon Blackburn, for ethical foundations. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are ethically adrift. Not reason, not religion, not intuition now seem adequate for grounding our behaviour.
Not only does this present us with a philosophical problem. On a social level, we are conflicted and disorientated with multiple ethics, while on a global level, our ethics increasingly seem to have come apart – with deepening poverty, social disintegration, and environmental destruction being the order of the day.

Philosophically, it was David Hume who first observed that we cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. We cannot, on the basis of a handful of facts, derive any values. Gradually, over the following centuries, this idea took hold – until, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, it achieved a wide acceptance. 'Whereof one cannot speak,' he wrote, 'thereof one must be silent.' He was referring, most importantly, to ethics.

How, then, shall we re-establish ethics in our time?

Many, today, would consider the very question to be foolish. Yet given two simple conceptual prerequisites, I propose that we may indeed re-establish ethics, philosophically:
• Prerequisite 1. The fact-value distinction would have to be set aside. This, I believe, should be possible by ridding ourselves of facts – and with facts, of things (facts are, after all, about things). This may not be as difficult as it seems.

• Prerequisite 2. We would need to reduce our world to relations, and only relations – without the existence of facts or things. Ethics – together with all other fields of inquiry – may then be defined in terms of relations, and relations alone.
With regard to the fact-value distinction then, it is important that we first understand that this rests on Hume's notion that all knowledge is subdivided into relations of ideas on the one hand, and matters of fact (and things) on the other. On closer examination, however, we find that this view cannot be sustained.

It was Francis Bacon who observed that the definitions of words have definitions. Similarly, we know that the features of words have features. Words, I have myself proposed, represent 'relations within relations'. Given that this is true, there can be no self-contained 'things'. Rather, our words (and thoughts) reach into an infinity of relations, and we speak about 'things' only by way of a truncated shorthand.

If, then, there are no self-contained 'things' in this world, and if our words (and thoughts) reach into infinity, then this must mean that we cannot speak truly about our world on the assumption that it is a closed system, in which we begin with axioms, origins, or specific reference points. This flies in the face of what we have before us. Rather, we need to step back from all systems, to view our world as an infinite canvas of relations.

I propose that we shall find, when we do this, that relations as a whole possess certain features – call them meta-features – many of which may only be recognised from a bird's eye view.

These features hold the promise of new ethical foundations:
• Feature 1. As we survey the infinite canvas of relations, we realise that some of the relations which we trace in this world do not in fact exist – and those relations which do not exist cannot form the basis of an acceptable ethics. Falsehood and deceit are, at bottom, attempts to trace non-existent relations.

• Feature 2. Since relations represent an infinite canvas – and any containment of relations detracts from this – the relations which we trace should range through all the world. The more we limit the scope of the relations which we trace, and the more we view things in isolation, the more we are at risk of fault or shipwreck, in any field.

• Feature 3. Since the relations which we trace should range through all the world, our ability to trace relations should not be obstructed or manipulated. This means that secrecy, propaganda, and misrepresentations are ruled out. Above all, an ethics of relations would favour an open society, since openness is a prerequisite for arranging our world.

• Feature 4. Relations are infinite, yet our minds are finite. Since our minds are capable only of encompassing limited regions of relations, this means that there will inevitably be relations which lie beyond our power to explain – and beyond our control. We need therefore to be acutely aware of our limitations of thought. There is no place for hubris.

• Feature 5. Infinite control is required to conquer infinite relations. Therefore our limitations may create within us powerful totalising urges. In view of our limitations therefore – which preclude any final ability to master our world – any ethics should avoid such totalising tendencies.

• Feature 6. When we elevate any given values above others in an infinity of relations, our (justified) fear that such values are empty and illusory grows. This may lead to a dysfunctional ethics, which drives us to fundamentalism – where fundamentalism is resistance to the fear of finding one's foundations to be exposed as baseless.

• Feature 7. We need to consider that we live in a world where new relations are continually emerging, which did not exist before, and in many cases were unimaginable just so many years ago. This means that ethics does not and cannot stand still.
Finally, when we view our world as an infinite canvas of relations, and only relations – having banished both 'facts' and 'things' – we may now define fact as those relations which are as we think they ought to be, and value as those relations which are as we think they ought not to be. In both cases, then – in all cases – we speak, at bottom, of 'ought'.

With careful consideration, we come to see that all of the natural and the human sciences, and all of our common life, represent value, not fact. Thus we escape the albatross of the fact-value distinction, and bring back ethics into the fold of philosophy.

For a deeper exploration of these themes, one may refer to the author's Metaphysical Notes.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Picture Post No. 14: On Otherness and Logic

'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
Photo credit Max Perissi .  Florence, Italy 1994

How can a woman in a semitransparent dress, passing on the streets of Florence, pass by unnoticed? Or should we question why a woman in a semitransparent dress is challenging? The above picture - inspired by Ruth Orkin’s 1951 photograph,  ‘American girl in Italy’, reworks the underlying issues of female freedom and independency.

Being foremost independent and possibly attractive stresses female power over men and the ability to challenge patriarchal behavior. The woman ‘out objects’ herself in claiming her ‘subjective freedom’. She, like He, plays this game in the face of gender difference, molding both men and women into objects. 

Challenging the other gender, even as we are controlled by a vision of being sexual bodies, is hitchhiking on a road where ‘the obvious will always be the driver, in a country of good reasons’, even when the road might be deceptive.

Less obvious is the question of whether we have distorted intimacy into something we can rationally justify? 

Have we made a confused exchange between the inescapable faults ascribed to the virtues of the male and female body and the awareness that intimacy informs all the conceptual relationships of Life?

Intimacy unties borders in which the other is disqualified - in a moral way. That this disqualification is unfounded might perplex us, but it will not make us doubt.

When intimacy is appropriated into a web of the already related, the lurking suspicion is that once we have sexualised the body, will we also not  find that we have destroyed intimacy?

Read on: More ways in which images  are not always quite what they seem are explored in the post immediately below, by Keith Tidman.

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