Monday, 2 May 2016

Picture Post No.12: Critical Eyes

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

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

Who are we then, today?

Monday, 25 April 2016

On ‘No Explanation’

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

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

‘No Explanation’

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Thing-in-Itself

By Thomas Scarborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 April 2016

Is Political Science Science?

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

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

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

Monday, 11 April 2016

Farmer Hogget, the Limited God

Posted by Eduardo Frajman

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

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

Monday, 4 April 2016

Picture Post No. 11 The Playground

'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

'Playing'. Original photo, title and date unknown, by Alexsandr Malin
In this deceptively simple image a simple gesture accentuates not only a perception of an optical play about reality, but also leads on to a vision about a virtual world.

We enter the paradox of pick and choose.

The shift between figure and background position produces contradictory responses. The object - the car being used as a kind of toy - transforms and breaks the coherence between the object and ourselves. Evidently, one value must have another value.

We can be flexible: the playground is free to enter. Humour has the capacity to reveal ‘our will of absence’ - to guide things beyond their ascribed function. We laugh alongside our own rigidity.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

How the Body Keeps Human Nature in Check

From Bauentwurfslehre, 1936, by Ernst Neufert
Posted by Eugene Alper, with Pi
One of the greatest problems of our time is the problem as to how ethics may be incorporated into metaphysics. The problem was first brought to the fore by David Hume, and became acute with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously wrote, 'Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent.'   He was referring to ethics.  
Yet beyond Hume and Wittgenstein – beyond Plato, Immanuel Kant, George Moore, and many others – beyond ethical naturalism, objectivism, rationalism – beyond all philosophy and all theory – it may be as simple as the human body. 

Imagine, with me, a man (or a woman) who is dropped into this world from the sky – not knowing anything at all.

He would very quickly discover that his body needs to be fed every five hours, and put to sleep every sixteen.  His skin, he would notice, is sensitive to cold, heat, and many kinds of pain.  He would find that food is not readily available – that it is dangerous to have to fight for it with other people and animals.  He would find that it is helpful to cultivate plants and domesticate animals – and counter-productive to wantonly destroy them.

He would find that blankets need to be of a certain size and thickness – being predicted, too, by the size and function of his body.  He would find that door handles need to be mounted at a certain height, and made for fingers such as his.  He would find that his body predicts the dimensions of many things: the size of a soccer ball, the shape of a boat – even the location of a university, or the power of rocket boosters.

He would find that it is troublesome to anger others – and to find a new shelter every night, to evade them.  He would soon guess that it is more energy efficient to get into a peaceful exchange with others, where he could trade for food something of his own – a thing or a service, or even a promise to be fulfilled in future.  He would find that his own body, with its vulnerabilities and frequent needs, force him to cooperate with others rather than destroy them.

He would find that, even if he were the biggest and strongest of all, he could not be big and strong twenty-four hours a day. For some eight hours daily he would be as defenseless as a baby, and would have to have someone trusted next to him not to get hurt. Even the meanest tyrant with the worst kind of human nature could not be bad all the time under these circumstances. The vulnerability of his own body in sleep and its dependence on non-poisonous food would make him be good at least to his closest circle.

In short, personal ethics, social ethics, political ethics, aesthetic values – building codes, agricultural norms, communications networks, and everything under the sun – would be governed by the body in which this man found himself at the start.  And not only that, but whatever his nature may be – whether 'good' or 'bad' – he would find that his needy body kept it under control.

It is not a new idea.  Theologians proposed it many centuries ago – namely, that a person is designed for certain ends – of whom Thomas Aquinas was the pre-eminent proponent.  Yet it may be precisely because it was a theological idea that it did not gain much traction.  The theology – whether true or false – may be set aside, yet the situation of this man remains the same, who fell from the sky.

We make no moral prescriptions here – no judgements, no commands, no commitments.  We simply leave a description of what a man (or a woman) is.  And whatever it may mean that he has a body or a soul, it finally comes down to this: 'Don't be too cocky', says the body, 'or you will get hurt.'

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Wittgenstein's Fork

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was convinced, from an early date, that philosophical problems would be solved by paying close attention to the workings of language. In this quest, he reached a great fork in the road. We may never know whether he recognised it as a fork – however the direction which he took profoundly influenced generations of philosophers.
Words, ran the dominant theory of Wittgenstein's day, were the 'basic units' or 'atomic elements' of language – much like the little pieces of coloured glass we use to create a mosaic. While the finished mosaic may represent anything we please – ships on the sea, for instance, or flowers on a table – the little pieces of glass are the most basic constituent parts which do not change. Similarly, says the Oxford Dictionary of Lingusitics, words are 'the union of an invariant form with an invariant meaning'. This view remains dominant today.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Poem: “Then … Forget It!”

The Democracy Complex of the Arab Spring 
Posted by Chengde Chen*

Love Letters by Jiang Zhi

Democracy is to follow the will of the majority,
but the will is divided into the ideal and reality.
When you poll the Arabs about the Arab Spring,
the result develops organically, from a Yes to a No.

If you ask, “Do you want to get rid of dictatorship?”
the majority will say yes, like seeds wanting to sprout.
If you ask further, “What if it has to be through war?”
the majority will say, “Then forget it.”

Compared to the devastation of bombing and ruin,
a life without a ballot box is nevertheless a life.
War turns the majority into refugees rather than heroes;
fleeing from it is voting with their feet for peace – any peace.

Democracy is a beautiful but cowardly dream.
Please get it right what the real democratic wish is.
Man is an animal for whom bread weighs more than ideals,
so he’d rather have sex-without-love than love-without-sex.

* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Eastern and Western Philosophy: Personal Identity

With acknowledgement to the CeramiX Art Collection
Posted by John Hansen
Once, when our world was not so small, major philosophies rarely made contact with one another. Further, being embedded in different languages, different concepts, different cultures, and different religions, on the surface of it they seemed to hold little in common.  
Yet as our world has become smaller, and as scholars have devoted more careful attention to distant ideas, so we have discovered, to our surprise, that our philosophies may be much the same.

A case in point is David Hume, the Scottish philosopher of the 18th Century, and Vasubandhu, the Indian philosopher of (about) the 5th – in particular, their views on personal identity.

From one point of view, there were enormous differences between these two men. Hume was an agnostic, and probably an atheist. He was, in the words of Julian Baggini, ‘as godless a man as can be imagined.’ Vasubandhu, on the other hand, was deeply religious. He was a Buddhist monk who spent much of his life writing commentaries on the teachings of the Buddha.

Yet Hume and Vasubandhu came remarkably close, on core philosophical issues. How then did they diverge so completely on matters of religion? What may this tell us about philosophy – above all about metaphysics? But first, let us survey a few examples of the central concepts common to both men, in the area of personal identity.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Picture Post No 10: Faceless Fighters of Vietnam, 1972

'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 and Martin Cohen

Somewhere in the Nam Can forest, Vietnam, in 1972 ( Image: Vo Anh Khanh)
In the pciture above, faceless activists meet in the Nam Can forest, wearing masks to hide their identities from one another in case of capture and interrogation.

For many Americans, the dominant image of the Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies during the war was as a ghostly enemy sneaking down the Ho Chi Minh trail defying US bombs and apparently inured to suffering.

The visual history of the Vietnam War has been defined by such images. There is Eddie Adams’ photograph of a Viet Cong fighter being executed; Nick Ut’s picture of a naked child fleeing a napalm strike, and Malcolm Browne’s photo of a man setting himself alight in flames at a Saigon intersection.

Monday, 29 February 2016

The Difficulty of Change

Posted by Tessa den Uyl 

We often use the word 'change' in our conversation. Everybody seems to understand such expressions as: change yourself, we have to change, things are changing, change is needed, or if only something would change.

Change presupposes a certain kind of disruption in the way we think. We guide our perceptions through the creation of conceptual relations, which we think of as stable, of which we are consciously aware, and of which we recognise certain qualities within.

Upon such conceptual relations we act and react. And yet we desire change. This would not be so but for the fact that we question these relations.

In a world of myriad relations, we tend to extract only a few as valuable for the pattern of our proper life. And where we ascribe everything to specific relations in our life, desiring change signals trouble. Yet without change, we have no descriptive material. Without the stream of constant sensory change, how can we perceive life? 

Monday, 22 February 2016

Machiavelli’s Understanding of the Art of Politics

Posted by Bohdana Kurylo
Can Niccolò Machiavelli’s political philosophy be compared with a dance?
Niccolò Machiavelli, who is often regarded as the founder of modern political science, is generally deemed a propagator of cruelty and immorality. Yet while he broke with the conventional language of politics in his day – based upon Christian values and a Ciceronian belief that a prince achieved glory through virtue – it is more appropriate to think of him as a pragmatist who introduced a greater realism to political philosophy. More important still, it was Machiavelli’s creative interpretation that helped him convert politics into scientific art which could be applied in everyday practice.

In The Prince, Machiavelli offered a pragmatic approach to politics which, rather than focusing on moral values, combined the importance of skill and prudence. Inspired by the success of the Roman State, Machiavelli thought of history as being cyclical – as he thought, too, of political issues. His understanding of politics thus came with an interest in history and statecraft, and he drew his conclusions from historical examples of agents. This contributed to his pessimism in regard to human nature and morality. Therefore, his most famous work, The Prince, which shuns the received views, Christian and Ciceronian – in fact warns against them – states that a successful ruler should act according to the circumstances, whereas being ‘good’ will lead to his downfall.

It could be claimed that Machiavelli sought to justify vices when speaking of the conflict between morality and reality. However, as the political philosopher Leo Strauss rightly suggests, it would be unfair to echo ‘the old-fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil’. As an example, when making an analysis of Agathocles of Sicily, who came to power with wicked cruelty, Machiavelli clearly condemned his actions and stated that ‘one cannot call it virtú to kill one’s citizens, betray one’s friends, to break one’s word, to be without mercy, without religion’. In addition, Strauss remarks that many extreme statements of Machiavelli were not intended to be taken seriously, but rather had the pedagogic intention of freeing ‘young’ princes from effeminacy. In the view of professor of politics Maurizio Viroli, he did not ‘construct a new language’, but provided a new, more pragmatic assessment of the art of politics.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Brexit? What's really been going on in Brussels

Posted by Martin Cohen

What’s really been going on in Brussels? On the face of it, the UK Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, has taken Britain to the brink of rupture with the European Union over the issue of child support payments to EU citizens working in the UK, but whose children live at home. The arguments over this raged for two nights and two days, as Mr Cameron pounded the table and wagged his finger and threatened to pull the whole EU house down. Official European plans for a post-discussion English dinner, and then - even more sacrosanct! - English Breakfast were left in tatters.

And that means something serious is going on. Eventually the ‘migrants’ as apparently fellow EU workers are now to be called, lost the right to the full child support benefit, but retained the right to a miserly version phased on the cost of living in their home country.

You’d have to be either pretty stupid, or very ignorant, like the vast majority of English people itching to unshackle themselves from the world's largest free trade area, to think this issue really was what the best minds of the Tory party were concerned about.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Poetry: On Nuclear Logic

Editorial note: Poetry touching on the great stories of our time, from Iran to North Korea, to Turkey to Israel, to...?

A poem by Chengde Chen 

Dr Strangelove provided a fictional insight into something all too real

On ‘Nuclear Logic’

Monday, 8 February 2016

An Information Society

A Proposal For a New 'Checks and Balances'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
“Power checks power,” wrote Charles de Montesquieu.  Yet power, to check power, rests on the disclosure of information.
The political philosopher Montesquieu, in the early 18th century, developed the political theory of the separation of powers, and with it, of checks and balances.  Through such a separation of powers, a government would be divided into three separate branches, each of which would serve as a check and a balance to the other two. Subsequently, Montesquieu's ideas have had a major influence on political philosophy – so that, today, democratic governments will typically (though not always) separate their legislative, executive, and judicial branches to guarantee continued stability and good governance.  It may seem a primitive notion today – namely, that power checks power – yet it really is the only way that we have.

However, given such a separation of powers, how should a nation know that this arrangement is working? How should one assess it? How should one confirm it? Separate powers can unite. Individual powers can gain the ascendancy. The answer is plainly: each branch of government needs to know what the others are doing – not only in terms of the various decisions which they take, but in terms of keeping open account of the way in which these decisions are carried out. And this needs to be public, or one loses not only public accountability and confidence, but the rich resources which are public thinking.

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