Monday, 23 November 2015

A Philosophy of Untruth

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
Untruth has to do, not with greed or with need, compulsion or coercion, but with my life-view – and my life-view begins with my conception of the world. From this arises every untruth.
Psychologist Richard Gregory puts it in a word: we, as humans, are motivated by the “unexpected”. That is, whenever and wherever I hold up my personal conception of the world to the world itself, and there discover a disjoint, I am moved to act. Therefore, prior to all of my actions is the way in which I arrange the world in my mind.

Supposing then that, in my imagination, my life is a happy family in suburbia – a friendly dog, fresh muffins on the table, and daisy-chains and laughs. Then I look from my kitchen window, to see my little girl with her face down in the grass. Suddenly there is a disjoint, and I spring into action. Of course, different people will spring into action for different reasons, and this reveals their various conceptions of the world. Some may not want a happy family in suburbia, or a dog, or fresh muffins on the table. Some may want to be loose and wild, and some may want to immerse themselves in figures. The possibilities are as many as the people.

And so, on the one hand, our conception of the world may be balanced and broad – or on the other hand, short-sighted, self-interested, and parochial. Some will live a “large” life, which is well-rounded and meaningful – while others will live a small-time existence, a self-destructive life, as fools or bunglers. In short, some will become wise, and some will become fools. With these simple observations, we may now describe the first of three forms of untruth we shall survey: namely, foolishness. Foolishness is rooted in the “small” view life – and where we find it, we tend to pity it, laugh at it, or denigrate it.  But we don't much take it to heart. It matters little to the rest of us.

Now consider that all of us arrange our worlds differently in our minds. And, again, from these conceptions of our world, our motivations arise. But now, given different conceptions of our world, and different motivations, it stands to reason that my own motivations may come into conflict with the motivations of another.  And if I do not yield to the other, then the other must yield to me. This must mean that if the other cannot, through natural processes, change my own conceptual arrangement of the world, they may yet be able to change the conceptual stuff that I have to work with. With a few targeted ruses, they may change the world I think I live in.

I may feel passionate about the village duckpond, for instance, while another person wants to build a helipad there. But if they cannot overcome my passion for the pond, by fairly changing my own conceptual arrangement of the world, they may tamper with the conceptual stuff I have to work with. They may tell me (falsely) that permission for their helipad has been granted on high authority, or that duckponds are death-traps for children. This now differs from mere foolishness, in that it seeks to manipulate what I know – and it happens all the time, whether on the personal level of lies, or on the political level of propaganda. It is our second form of untruth: namely, lies and deceit.

But further than this.  Not only may one change the way in which I arrange the world in my mind. One may change the world itself – through force and through violence, or comparable actions. Think again on the person who wishes to create the helipad. In the dark of night now, they send a small-time crook with a dump truck, to fill in the duckpond in one dramatic act. Now my conceptual arrangement of the world must change, because the world itself has changed. I have no pond left to defend, and no more purpose in opposing a helipad.

The dynamics of course may be more complex in the real world. It may be easy to see that a pond was filled in on the orders of the person who had a vested interest in it. It may be less easy to see that running me out of town with false rumours had to do with the pond, or that someone now drives a new Bentley on this account. And so the world of untruth may become tangled and dark, and as vast as the ocean. One finds it in lies and in half-truths, bluff and deceit, rationalisation and subterfuge – and now, thirdly, in violence of many kinds: physical, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual.

Now notice what has happened in the course of this short post. By means of some basic principles, all manner of evils in this world have been reconciled. Whether someone is reckoned to be a fool, a liar, or a thug, these are all basically one and the same. It is through a false conceptual arrangement of the world that people fall prey to each one. And notice something else: something about human nature, which seems to speak louder than words. Our moral integrity (or not) lies beyond our immediate control. It lies beyond all moralism and legalism. It changes only if our very life-view changes.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Kikaku leads the way

Posted by Alex Stein*

Image by
Sometimes people ask me how I came to be a writer of aphorisms. To that, I reply:

I came to the aphorism by way of haiku and I came to haiku by ways still vague to me. I was 25, living in Seattle, and in thrall to the prose of Jack Kerouac. I spent my days and evenings filling notebook after notebook with stream of consciousness twaddle. Perhaps, I would have continued at this until I was good and dead. There was really no reason not to. I enjoyed the activity. Notebooks were cheap. The hours flew by.

Then something odd: in the middle of the twaddle, I wrote a little poem. 
Dandelion, roar!
Simple thing,
speak your simple mind.
I looked at the poem, and here is the curious thing: the poem looked back at me. Not long after that I wrote:
Hold light,
for a short life:
The more I looked at these poems, the more they looked back at me. “What?” I asked. “What do you want?” “Divine us,” they replied. “How?” I asked. “Divine us,” they repeated.

In a bookstore in downtown Seattle, I found a haiku anthology. In it, I read Kikaku’s:
Above the boat,
of wild geese.
Over the next few years, I must have read that poem a thousand times. Then, one day, I wrote in the margin:
Perhaps our world is the spirit world of some other world. Perhaps our birdsongs are heard but faintly in some other world, and only by certain ears. Perhaps a poem is like an airlock that carries the breath of one world into the lungs of the next.
I read Kikaku’s:
  Evening bridge,
  a thousand hands
  cool on the rail.
 I wrote:
Kikaku’s bridge spans both the construct of space and the abstract of time; so, all those hands, “cool on the rail,” are also the hands of the dead in their various phases of crossing-over.
 Kikaku! That was the unlikely name of the piper who led me on.”

*Alex Stein is (with James Lough) the co-editor of, and a contributor to, Short Flights: Thirty-two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration and Wit, the first EVER anthology of contemporary writers of aphorism. Other aphorists in Short Flights include Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns, Irena Karafilly, and Yahia Lababidi.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Six smarter ways to stop the terrorists

It is important to fight the real enemy, not an imaginary one
François Hollande declared the attacks on Paris “an act of war that was waged by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, by Daesh [the Islamic State], against France.” The French president (who was at the soccer game outside which bombs were detonated), has promised that France will wage "pitiless war" against those who conceived and executed the attacks.

Now there's two ways to respond to the Paris attacks - an unthinking violent way, and a smart way. Guess which one is in favour? The influential magazine, Foreign Policy, puts it very clearly, it sees  in the streets of Paris an occasion for the ruthless application of hard power.

France has already had one outrage - in the senseless killing of a group of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists seated around their conference table. The response to that - essentially an attack on free speech - was a new law prohibiting language that the State interpreted as supportive of terrorism. In the days that followed, several hapless French motorists were given life terms in prison for breaching the new rules.

A 34-year-old man who hit a car while drunk, injuring the other driver and goaded the police when they detained him by praising the acts of the Hebdo killers was sentenced to four years in prison. In the following days, according to Cédric Cabut, a French prosecutor, a good hundred people were investigated or charged with making or posting comments that 'supported terrorism'. Of course, the charges were ridiculous. But the principle of 'free speech' the cartoonists had died for was buried further.

And rather than arrest and carefully dissect the mindset of the terrorists, the government organised a spectacular 'shoot out' with them, which left the media satisfied but the nation deprived of an opportunity for a meaningful investigation into the underlying issues.

And now less that a year on, another and indeed worse tragedy, underlines the failure to learn anything from the first one.

The immediate response was to 'close the borders' - a grand slamming shut of the characteristic French shutters  -  to stop terrorists getting in or out. This involved several hundred thousand police and army. But it was entirely irrelevant to a terrorist cell made up largely of European (three were from Brussels!), indeed, French, nationals.

So let me tentatively and in a spirit of solidarity, offer the French authorities some more 'analytical' six ideas on behalf of the ordinary people of France  - not the government or the security forces - who were the chosen targets as well as the victims in both attacks.

1. There is no way to stop small groups of people killing ordinary citizens. You can protect your elites, but cannot protect the vast majority. Thus the real battle is for minds and hearts.
"A 242-ship Navy will not stop one motivated murderous fanatic from emptying the clip of an AK-47 into the windows of a crowded restaurant."

2. It follows from this that the security services must work under and for the people, not on top of and against them, as has always been the case in France. The most egregious example of what happens when the security services operate in isolation from the people came in the Second World War when the gendarmerie rounded up Jews for transportation to the Nazi death camps.

3. Instead of these 'muscular' reasons - immediately proffered again by the French politicians - there should be an intelligent response, both in terms of social policy and in terms of security. Suspicious individuals, of whom for example returned jihadis are an obvious and entirely manageable group, should be individually watched and their activities curtailed. Policies directed against the 60 million French people - such as closing the borders, searching all vehicles etc etc - are not only an abuse of power but a waste of resources.

4. The French State needs to respect citizens of all religious persuasions. It simply won't do, for example, to  impose pork on Muslims (or Jews, or indeed vegetarians) in school canteens, nor is there any rational argument for opposing the wearing of headscarves. Face-obscuring garments I think are in a different category. There is a tendency to seek the erasure of religion today rather than the freedom of religion. At the same time, radical Islam itself seems to advance by encroaching on the laws of a nation. It expands its ‘territory’, where other religions focus on heart.
5. Part of the State's obligations to all its constituent groups is to ensure equality of opportunity - and to actively combat inequality. It is in the swamps of the sprawling suburbs of the cities, that the Hebdo killers festered. Jihadis are by no means explained as simply frustrated workers, but on the other hand, their twisted senses of grievance are fuelled by the extremes they see in life around them.

6. The militarisation of the police and the frequent use of the army by the French State creates inevitably a response, and the people who suffer most, as we have seen now, are the weakest and most defenceless. It is thus shameful to hear the drum beating and the clamouring for more 'resources' from the security services that have so clearly let down their citizens.

Europe needs to think outside the box, not only about war but about peace.  I sense that it needs fundamentally new ideas, even mindsets, and an openness to new ideas without its obsession to preserve what it has, or idolises. 

But there's one other practical step that can be taken. Stop propping up the anti-democratic regimes in the Gulf States. The ones behind 9/11, and many other atrocities worldwide - and now the new horror in Paris.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Poetry: Questioning the EU Referendum

Editorial note: “Many readers outside Europe will not have heard of Britain’s plan to vote on whether or not to stay in the European Union – nor indeed may any who have care very much. But Chengde’s thoughts apply not only to a single referendum, but to democracy itself.  They apply to every item we buy in the shop, every deposit someone makes at a bank.”

A poem by Chengde Chen 

Questioning the Referendum

Britain is split by whether to remain in the EU or not
but very much united over the way of resolution
All the parties have agreed to settle it by a referendum –
let the people decide – the great principle seems indisputable
Yet, there’re two questions like a fish-bone stuck in my throat:
is it true that people always understand their own interests?
is it democracy to vote on things the voters don’t understand?

Democracy contains two elements that are linked
One, people have the right to vote for their own interests
Two, voters should know what their interests are –
only such voters can really exercise their right to vote
Children can’t vote, as they don’t understand their interests
Nor can mental patients, as they may not know theirs either
To ask people to vote on things they don’t understand
is to let the blind select colour or the deaf judge music

Do ordinary folks always understand their own interests?
With the increase in scale and complexity of society
there are issues beyond most people’s comprehension
For such matters, adults are in fact ‘children’ –
sufficient age does not mean sufficient knowledge

Although knowledge can be obtained through education
not all that is needed can be given by a short course

How would voting be affected by ignorance?
Operational research shows that
if there is a correct choice, ignorance reduces its chances
When a thousand vote on an issue understood only by ten
the rationality of the 1% will be drowned in the sea of ignorance
So, when doctors are divided over a surgical procedure
the hospital refers it to an expert panel, not a referendum
People need specialists’ help for their democracy
just as they need their GPs and solicitors

Whether Britain should stay in the European Union
is an extremely complex matter that is highly technical
Either way has countless advantages and disadvantages –
many many economic, political, and cultural concerns
many many short, medium, and long term consequences
Some effects may be foreseen, while most are not…
an overall understanding takes sophisticated calculation
 (Some want to leave the EU because they dislike Germans
as if they could go to war with Scots because of their kilts!)

If the principle of not allowing children to vote is right
to use a referendum to determine the EU matter is wrong
Parliament shirking its responsibility in the name of democracy
is like a pilot handing over his plane to the passengers in that name!

The matter should be decided by a certain ‘expert democracy’
for example, to let a thousand economists vote on it
Although this won’t guarantee a correct decision
it will be a more scientific one, rooted in reason

I do not, of course, expect the country to heed my advice
so I leave this poem to those heading for the ballot box
A ballot box is the symbol of democracy
but its slot should be guarded by knowledge
Voting with knowledge is democracy with reason
while a box of ignorance is a political dustbin

Britain did not have Confucius, but can have his words:
‘Understanding is understanding, and not so is not so’
A rational man shouldn’t vote on things he doesn’t understand
while an abstainer can be proud of his or her rationality!


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

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Who is 'the Most Powerful' Really?

Posted by Martin Cohen 

This 'thought experimenter' was powerful in a way too

The 'Rich list' was bad enough, but oh no, here comes the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People!

Forbes' list  (Reuters' picture version is here)  is really silly stuff – but more than that – its publication and repetition around the world’s media, show how little we respect AUTHORS and artists and doctors and scientists and philosophers and... well you can add your own kind of ‘powerful’ people. Here though, it is Putin is first, Obama second and the Pope is No. 4.

Forbes said it took four factors into consideration when it created the list: how many people they have power over (that looks like a tautology, if you ask me); the financial resources they control (in what sense? Obama can’t really spend the US Treasury on his projects); if they have influence in more than one sphere (wobbly criterion); and how actively they throw their weight around in the world. That last one is the real indicator of how crude the thinking is here. Is a politician more powerful if they wage a war or if they achieve their aims through behind-the-scenes diplomacy?

Curious perhaps, though, given these rules, is to take a second look at Facebook’s Zuckerberg. He’s rich – but does he really throw his weight around? Does he control us when we  click his 'like' buttons?

It’s a highly political list...

Obama had been on the top of the list every year he had been President except in 2010, when Hu Jintao, the former political and military leader of China, was Numero Uno. Steve Forbes is a Presidential hopeful, as well as magazine organ grinder. The crowd-pulling monkey in this case is Forbes writer, Caroline Howard, who explained some of the thinking:
“Putin has solidified his control over Russia, while Obama's lame duck period has seemingly set in earlier than usual for a two-term president — latest example: the government shutdown mess.” 
... but I’d go further. It’s not just politics, it's crass, childish and perpetuates myths about what is really important in life and society. Bankers, financiers and increasingly politicians too, are people who circulate money - not people who change the world. Ideas, not individuals, truly change the world!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Rationalism and Relationality in Roman Catholicism

The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Thomas Scarborough finds links between metaphysics and theology in the ideas of Fr. Cornelis (Kees) Thönissen.
About the size of a modern A4 sheet of paper, a painting of Benozzo Gozzoli (1471) hangs in the Louvre in Paris. Titled The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, it depicts St. Thomas, seated with a completed metaphysic on his lap, flanked by Aristotle on the left, and Plato on the right. At his feet lies the Arabic philosopher Averroes.
It happened chiefly through the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas. Through Aquinas' metaphysics, the thought of the Roman Catholic Church was tainted – which further opened the door, in time, to Enlightenment rationalism and scientific-technological reason. Such reason is linear, mathematical, geometric, and finally, analytic. It is epitomised by Newtonian logic, which works on universal laws. This means that everything rests on experiment, and thus the (observing) senses.

Such rationality, while it is rightly a part of the universal structure of what we are and who, has limitations of narrowness. Reason in its fulness, wrote Pope Benedict XVI, is larger than that. It is the all-meaning logos, which is the reason of the mind of God. This includes the reason which asks: What is the meaning of all things? Why do things ‘hold together’ in the way that they do? Why are we here? To what personal purpose, and what end? We may approach such questions in two ways:
1. By broadening our idea of what reason really is, and
2. By taking into account our human relationality.

THE FIRST APPROACH: Is our reason really capable, through the mind alone, of finding such answers? The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally held: Yes. Yet what kind of ‘reason’ might this be? It cannot be the same as the narrow reason we have just described. Or does the Church's ‘reason’ really include insight as intuition – into and behind reality? Such a human capacity would lie beyond linear reason – beyond physics – a capacity which was partly perceived by Aristotle in his Meta-physics.

What then should we call this capacity or faculty ‘beyond reason’ – this something that we naturally, innately possess – this capacity somehow tied back to the ‘Being’ behind the universe: the religious spirit, the Jewish heart, the Greek pneuma, the breath of life, and the Christian soul? Aha, now we have passed further than the ‘mind alone,’ so that we need to rethink how we are constituted by our anthropological capacities, which are more than just a brain and a body.

The Roman Catholic tradition today, when it speaks of ‘reason’, fails to make it clear that it does not talk merely of narrow Enlightenment reason, or scientific-technological reason, but of a broader reason which includes the insightful, spiritual capacities, or spiritual intuition. And there’s the debate set out for us! If we are content with rationalism coupled to our brains, we fool ourselves into shallowness. And such shallowness, as postmodernism has pointed out, cannot save us, or our planet.

What, then, is ‘the more’ of me and you about?

THE SECOND APPROACH: Most of all, each of us is heavily involved in relationships, or relationality. We find that what is most precious to us is our relations, which is the foci (persons!) that consume our energies. Aristotle and St. Thomas were more involved in things. So was Kant. Thus the category of relation was downgraded. So why has the Church pressed so heavily for thinking ourselves towards God – although this is valuable as far as it goes?

We can think about relationships, but we do not think them. Those who are ‘in love’ don’t start there. They start with the experience of self-giving. The Judaeo-Christian religion begins with the Revelation of God which is set in human experience, in human history – above all through the Son of God on earth. A fresh, ‘humble’ metaphysics reverses the Church's traditional path. It begins, not so much with God in himself as we think about him, but with God who is in relationship with me. Through reason in its fulness, as logos, we may know God directly. This even a child can do. We’ve only made it hard because we double-think everything.

Relationality holds everything together in meaning. Therefore relationality has to be an essential category of our existence. Relations, then, occur in our experience – which makes experience an essential category, too. And we need to be able to intuit these relations, which requires a spiritual intuition or capacity beyond the brute force of narrow reason. Spiritual intuition, therefore, is as basic to our existence as scientific-technological reason.

A seven-hundred page dissertation by Fr. Dr. Cornelis (Kees) Thönissen OFM Cap. may be accessed (free) atThönissen C.J. 2015. Foundations for Spirituality: A 'Hermeneutic of Reform' for a Church Facing Crises Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi. Pretoria: UNISA.

Picture Post No. 8: Apples

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

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

One sees, above, the results of two Google Image searches. First, I searched for 'apples'.  Then, I searched for 'pommes'.  Then I jumbled them up.  Pommes, of course, are apples in French.  Do not scroll down. 

'Apples' have an ideal form.  So much so, in fact, that they tend to shift into abstraction or stylization.  Mostly (though not in every case), they sport only one leaf.  Apples only occur singly.  They are red, and only red, and they are polished to a perfect shine. One apple has been cut, though not to eat it – rather to engrave a picture perfect symbol on it.  'Pommes', on the other hand, belong to a family of pommes, of various colours: red, green, yellow, even plum.  And leaves: they may have one, or two, or none.  One may take a bite out of them to taste.  One may cut them through, or slice them: to smell their fragrance, or perhaps to drop them in a pot. And pommes are always real, unless one should draw one for a child.

Now separate out the apples from the pommes. Scroll down. You probably accomplished this with 80% accuracy. In so doing, you acknowledged – if just for a moment – that in some important way, apples are not pommes.

(Now try the same with more distant languages, and more complex words).

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

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Two Google Image searches.  First, 'apples'.  Then, 'pommes'. (A pomme, of course, is an apple in French). 

The 'apples' (English) have an ideal form.  Several shift even into abstraction or stylization.  They sport one leaf (with two exceptions).  They only occur singly.  They are red, and only red, and are polished to a perfect shine. One apple has been cut: not to eat, but to engrave a picture perfect symbol on it.  The 'pommes' (French) belong to a family of pommes, of various colours: red, green, yellow, even plum.  One may take a bite out of them to taste, or cut them through or slice them: to smell their fragrance, or to drop them into a pot.  Pommes, too, are always real, unless one should draw a picture for a child.

Signifier points to signified, we are told, whether 'apple' or 'pomme'. But in English and in French, are the signifieds the same?

Monday, 2 November 2015

Picture Post No. 6: The Croquet Game

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

Posted by Martin Cohen and Tessa den Uyl

New Mexico, 1874

This peaceful scene (the whole right part looks almost like a romantic painting) of a game of croquet set in the American South, generated considerable media interest, once it was established that one of the men pictured was none other that the notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid. Billy, it should be explained, was considered to be both ruthless and dashing, and had a dramatic end at an early age involving a shoot out with the sherifs.

Juxtaposed, then, as art critics might say, with this quintessentially genteel act, the game of croquet, redolent of English afternoon teas and cucumber sandwiches, we have a powerful perhaps slightly piquant reminder that even a murderer, a desperado, can have another, gentler  side. (Even if, as anyone who has actually played croquet knows, the game is actually quite cruel and remorseless, as players wreck the hopes of their opponents by blasting their wooden balls into the shrubbery.)

Billy himself, looking just a little bit dangerous?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Rejuvenated PI Logo


Diet Tips of the Great Philosophers ≠92: Henry Thoreau and Green Beans

Posted by Martin Cohen

Many of the philosophers whom we rely on to represent little oases of good sense and rationality in a disorganised world, disappointingly turnout, on closer inspection, to be not only rather eccentric, but downright irrational. David Henry Thoreau, an anarchist who eked out a living by making pencils while living in a shed by a pond, on the other hand, appears even at first glance to be rather eccentric. Short, shabby, wild-haired and generally rather unprepossessing, he nonetheless seems to have anticipated much of the ecological renaissance that today’s philosophers (and diet gurus) have only just begun to talk about. Oh, and yes, he was always rather thin.

In his Journal entry for January 7, 1857, Thoreau says of himself: 
'In the streets and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it - dining with the Governor or a member of Congress! But alone in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine.

I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. . . I wish to . . . be sane a part of every day.'
He is famous for having spent two years living in a small wood cabin by a pond, and living off, not so much three fruits of the woods, but his own allotment. Naturally, Thoreau was a vegetarian. He remarks how one farmer said to him: ‘You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make the bones with;’ even as the farmer:
‘... religiously devoted a part of his day to supplying himself with the raw material of bones, walking all the while behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.’
Thoreau himself cultivated, not so much an allotment, as a small bean farm, of two and a half acres, which provided for himself the bulk of the food he ate –peas, corn, turnips, potatoes and above all green beans, the last of which crop he sold for extra cash. During the second year, he reduced his crops, if anything, writing:
‘ … that if one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, and raise no more than he ate, and not exchange it for an insufficient quantity of more luxurious and expensive things, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground, and that it would be cheaper to spade up that than to use oxen to plow it, and to select a fresh spot from time to time than to manure the old, and he could do all his necessary farm work as it were with his left hand at odd hours in the summer.’
He drank mainly water, writing that it was ‘the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor’ and worrying about the temptations of a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!

From life in the woods he learned, among other things, that it ‘cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food’ and that ‘a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength.’

In a chapter of his most famous book, Walden, entitled simply, ‘The Bean Field,’ Thoreau records how:
‘I came to love my rows, my beans… They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antæus. But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows. This was my curious labor all summer — to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work.’
For Thoreau, buying food, allowing others to grow food for him, would have disconnected him from the land, from direct contact with Nature, the source of both his bodily and spiritual nourishment. It was not enough to just have something to eat; he also wanted the experience of growing it.

Diet tips:

Food that you’ve grown has a special quality
You don’t need to eat a huge range of things to be healthy 

Monday, 26 October 2015

What Would Happen If 3-D Printers Could 3-D Print Themselves?

Posted by Matthew Blakeway
“In the future, [the human species] will refuse to put themselves at the service of pirates. They will become what I call transhumans – who will give birth to a new order of abundance” ―Jacques Attali.
The French philosopher and economist Jacques Attali* predicted in the 1970s that the music industry would collapse. Within twenty years, he was basically proved right. If something is freely or cheaply replicable, then economic theory predicts that its value will trend towards zero. Ever since we were able to record our friends’ vinyl LPs on cassette, the ability of musicians to earn a living from recorded music was doomed – and so it turned out to be. Musicians today earn less and less from selling recorded music. I myself, as a writer, am acutely aware that it is getting harder to make a living, even in a world where people are reading more.

Now Attali is making the same predictions about manufactured goods. 3-D printing, while it still is a relatively new technology, opens the door to being able to scan a wide variety of objects into a 3-D printable file and e-mail it. Many manufactured products may become infinitely reproducible, their value trending towards zero. It has already been done, if only experimentally. We already have 3-D printed musical instruments, camera lenses, weapons – even 3-D printed refrigerators and cars. It isn’t inconceivable that we all will be able to upload 3-D printable files for such items which we can print at home and assemble Ikea-style. We could then tweet the link so that everybody else can have one.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Meaning is More

Cueva de las Manos, Argentina
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
The title of one of Thomas Nagel's popular books reads at first sight like a question to be answered: 'What Does It All Mean?' But the word 'All' has undertones of something more perverse. I wrote to Professor Nagel that, as one turns the pages, the meaning of the title seems to turn into to a cry of despair. Yes, he replied, I had recognised the double entendre.
For many people, a lack of meaning is no slight problem. Some experience it as a living death, while others would rather die than surrender their meaning. At the same time, there has been a curious retreat of meaning in our day. It now lies beyond the interest of many people – even, sometimes, beyond the interest of dictionaries of philosophy. Historically, however, it has been an important philosophical question.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Maybe our life is not that personal...

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

 We think, act and feel without understanding precisely what it is that makes us act, feel or think the way we do. It is difficult to understand why we became accustomed to our visions of, and opinions about, life. We find ourselves into narratives others have created for us and have to find ourselves within these accustomed stories that maybe are not as familiar as we would like to believe. To extract ‘the impersonal’ out of this familiarity and bring it towards the narrative we identify with is difficult

As physical beings, we become a person and during life we try to keep up with that conception. We are conceived to then conceive ourselves. When we are born, someone else has already imagined us. This pre-imagination initiates a life to become your life to then be re-imagined as a life somehow different from that one. The better the ‘proper’ narrative fits, the less conflict will occur; the idea of exclusion fits an idea of inclusion in safeguarding experiences of certain values and goals.

In the routine of daily life rarely attention focuses on the premises that gave raise to those values. We might say that the value doesn’t remember where it came from and neither can it be understood why it is believed, though those values seem to constitute a rather important playground for our narratives. Previous ideas are exactly those we use to inhabit our narratives and comprehend the narratives of others - the abstract building blocks we identify with.

Strangely, we are tempted to identify with something we didn’t imagine ourselves but are willing to see ourselves, and others, in that picture. The picture is to always have a picture: without a picture we fall out of identification, one of the greatest human fears. In the absorption of many narratives deposited into many values, a person has to find, create and become in a universe. In such situations we start to understand the difficulty involved in coming to ones senses. ‘We are born as a person but it is difficult to die as a person.’

Changing your personal narrative means taking considerable responsibility while undertaking a flight into the unknown. A change of narrative doesn’t solely involve doubt and questioning life as a whole; it means searching to apply those doubts into a life for which there are no alternatives at hand. Altering ones narrative is a struggle with estrangement. Somehow the narrative is pulled into a need to not safeguard former descriptions; it is a profound surrender towards the unknown. This is why such change provokes perplexity, a state of being that is needed to avoid ending thinking (too quickly). Perplexity indicates a pause to identify things and put them into the proper narrative, inevitably postponing the identification of those narratives thought by others.

Imagining narratives is our tool to relate ourselves in a world; our capability to weave things together. It is the human way to give a sense to Life. Now if this weaving is used to confirm the best copy of what we think is a good picture, we are not truly weaving the relations ourselves but only those that serve a particular purpose: the picture orders the weaving. Any perplexity that arises during this kind of weaving is due to estrangement from that picture; it cannot but pull the proper confusion back into that picture.

Yet you cannot simultaneously weave a picture while not affirming it, even though you’re still weaving. Such weaving is of changing phenomena and every confusion that arises cannot be drawn back into the picture but only into the weaving. When you no longer work with static images, you are forced to dismantle the rigidity of your perception. This is the moment that imagination can truly break loose.

Long ago, we identified with the mammoth we killed to provide shelter, clothes, food and sacrifice: however the mammoth was standing next to us. Our relation was then rather direct. Today, when we’re asked to give opinions about world politics and economics, we witness visions from others all over the globe; but this is an abstraction of which our lives have become another instantiation. It seems awfully frightening to become aware of this picture; the awareness involves envisioning your proper narrative placed onto those ‘impersonal’ building blocks that have become more abstract then ever before and of which it seems we don’t want to separate ourselves. What tricks us is that the picture enigmatically provides an idea for the worthiness of our life. But upon what exactly have we placed that worthiness?

An important question to pose might be whether we are capable to keep track with those narratives that gave raise to our visions about life? We identify with those abstractions, we have feelings, opinions about, one might say, almost everything. Maybe we overestimate what we know in those narratives and lack humility in recognising what we can know.

Is the vision of our lives in which we overcome (and thus embrace) insecurity something too abstract to be imagined? Must we accept to live lives based on an abstraction that is far beyond our own imagination? Or dare we enter into a deep crisis of the kind hinted at by Nietzsche when he has the madman warn:

 “ ...what did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun?”

The challenge, as Zarathustra might have expressed it, is to try to relate our own, proper narratives to our suns.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Picture Post No. 5 Tabernacle Reflections

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

Piazza Vetra, Milan, November 2014
Picture credit: Antonio Borrani

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t that what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'
Posted by Tessa den Uyl

The expressive imagery necessary to bring some kind of sense to our lives is compromised by the production of other, competing images. This neutralisation of the grace of the image brings with it some transformations in our perception.

If we can say that every image offers us various possibilities for interpretation, placing itself before our thinking, then we can see images as providing a kind of balancing pole for our lives. This balancing element is rightly placed between the image and the viewer - like a bridge where imagination is free to flourish, for the bridge is the space of the unforeseen.

We might say that the very instability of the bridge provides the movement for our imagination. It is by using such bridges that human beings can deal with their existential selves.

Yet what happens when the unforeseen becomes foreseen?

When things are taken away from their natural environment and placed somewhere else, change occurs. When change occurs by a manipulative act, it is very much possible that the next act upon that will function to enforce that first one.

An image that originally handed to us a multiplicity of possible interpretations, offering to give sense to our lives, becomes meaningless. The image is placed behind the thought.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Foundations of Spirituality

The oldest known portrait of St. Francis.
Posted by Thomas Scarborough

An Exploration of the Thought of Fr. Cornelis (Kees) Thönissen.
“A thought theory that never comes to grips with intuition, hallucination, spirituality or dreaming cannot possibly be a serious account of cognition.” —David Gelernter.
The entire discipline of spirituality – insofar as one may call it a discipline – is unstable. It is pluriform, fragmented, free-floating, subjective, without firm ground and without accepted categories, lacking cohesion. In a word, it is ramshackle.

However, spirituality is where we must begin, if we desire true religion. All religious dogma, without spirituality, is hollow at best. In Fr. Kees' Roman Catholic tradition, a vital spirituality has been neglected in favour of the laborious effort of straining to God through a metaphysics which St. Thomas Aquinas built on a rediscovered Aristotle. It is an impressive yet static edifice, employing (to most) unfathomable language: being, substance, essence, accidence, and so on.

The existing traditional edifice, on its own, is ill equipped to respond to the most pressing challenge of the Roman Catholic Church, which was identified by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI as the spiritual reform of faith. Here is the classic predicament which both Catholic and Protestant traditions still properly need to resolve: faith remains weak (fundamentalist) without reason, while rationalism is uninspiring and incomplete (Descartes, for instance, or Kant). There is a pressing need for a vital spirituality.

But then, how should one derive a living spirituality from that which is sterile? How should one ground it? And how should one unite it with a theology of truth? How may one even – to be yet more bold – universalise it? Answering the call of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, these questions became Fr. Kees' journey of fifteen years of doctoral research.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Reason and Contradiction

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

“Beginning to think is beginning to
be undermined.”  –Albert Camus.

What is reason? Like an axe in our hands, we use it, we don't contemplate it. But we do know that we use it to make sense of things. We do know that we (puzzlingly) apply it to a variety of seemingly disconnected fields: science, ethics, and art, among others. And then, perhaps most importantly, we know that reason is a conscious activity.

One of the most important characteristics of our consciousness is that it kicks in where contradiction arises. Imagine a pendulum, swinging, swinging, swinging. So little contradiction does this present that, rather than producing consciousness, people use pendulums to induce hypnosis. But let the pendulum suddenly drop, and we quickly jump forward to examine what has happened to it -- for then it has contradicted our expectations. 

Things like this happen all the time, in many different ways. A shadow passes over my table in a restaurant. I feel a sudden pain under my foot. Or there is a strange taste in my coffee. These all contradict what I expect – and immediately I want to know: What is it? Why? Where did this come from?

Monday, 14 September 2015

Doublethink 16 - The Interway

Index: 198

Poetry: A Royal Question

Editorial note: In this poem, Chengde talks at one level about the Queen of England, a topic of perennial interest to the English and the social media - but evidently of rather limited 'philosophical' interest. However, we feel he uses the theme to explore deeper and and more subtle issues. Is he making a very contemporary point about the relationship of parents and children – and how economic power can lie (stay) with the parents even in old age?

A poem by Chengde Chen 

A Royal Question

With Her Majesty’s 90th birthday approaching,
Britain can’t help asking an inconvenient question:
why still no sign of abdication?
Apart from anything else, won’t the 68-year-old future king
become too old for his future?
It is said that there are two reasons for her persisting.

One, it’s a British tradition that the monarch doesn’t retire.
Two, she made her vow in her coronation to serve for life.
Yet, how does she see her heir apparent’s situation?
Isn’t a mother’s devotion an instinctive “tradition” and “vow”?
If a ceremonial title weighs more than her son’s happiness,
hasn’t wearing the crown exhausted her motherhood?

To succeed to the throne is a prince’s natural desire,
much as students want to graduate or fledglings want to fly.
The humiliation of the long wait, the grey hair from restraint:
wouldn’t the mother have seen and understood?
She can pretend not to have, or choose to ignore them, but
can she ignore the resentment growing in his heart?

If he is waiting for, or even longing for, his mother’s…,
what would this mean to her?
The soul-stirring succession stories that happened in history
–the internal strife, the murderous fighting with drawn swords–
are the logical development of prince psychology.
To keep the throne, or the son, that is the question.


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