Here’s a short piece for the Huffington Post, kind of about the moral use of technology. There’s a well-worn example of some bridges, built low over the roads to a nice beach. The thought is that cars can slip underneath, but buses can’t — so rich, mostly white car owners can enjoy the beach, and the poor, mostly black users of public transport cannot. The moral of the story, drawn by the social theorist Langdon Winner, is that some objects literally have politics. The bridges are not used for racist ends, but are themselves imbued with racist values. I have no idea what to think about this, but the possibility is at least intriguing. Maybe technology is not a neutral tool. Maybe it does what it does, to some extent, whether we like it or not.
I’ll be talking about this at the philosophy festival HowTheLightGetsIn on 2 June, in a session called ‘Luddites and Fools‘.
The current issue of tpm features a series of essays on grassroots philosophy — philosophy that’s alive and at large outside the academic world. We’re putting some of the essays online for free, and here’s one by Hilary Lawson, called ‘Back to Big Thinking’.
Some say that philosophy is marginalised, it has lost its way — to some loud scientists, philosophy is even a figure of fun. What happened? Lawson wonders whether analytic philosophy is responsible.
What came to be known as analytic philosophy developed its own arcane character and its own impenetrable terminology. In the process it has gradually walled itself in to its own ivory tower. At the outset the philosophy of logical analysis set out to provide the framework for others to do their thinking. It was to be the under-labourer clearing the ground. No grand theories here, just solid work aimed at making life more effective for other disciplines.
The very project of course in some sense demeaned philosophy – although it may have appealed to a British sense of understatement. Gone were the goals of a grand metaphysical vision. Instead, a limited role lay ahead. This would have been well if it had succeeded. If the clarifications it offered had indeed proved valuable to other disciplines and if other disciplines had taken its insights as a basis for their own investigations.
The reality has been rather more prosaic. A century of analytic philosophy is hard pushed to find a single clarification that has been of any real value to another discipline. Not least perhaps because such advances relied on the emergence of agreement amongst philosophical enquirers. How could other disciplines make use of the new insights if philosophers themselves were still in dispute? Philosophers in the public mind actually outpace economists or politicians in this respect as the philosophical joke currently doing the rounds neatly identifies: How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb? It depends on how you define “change”.
The application of logic to language never lived up to Russell’s dream. Having demonstrated that logic could describe mathematics, or so he believed, he understandably wished to extend this to language, thereby providing a perfect medium, free of error, for all to use. It was a great idea. It has motivated generations of philosophers and philosophy departments. The problem though is that the dream is impossible – as Wittgenstein thought he had demonstrated in the Tractatus, almost at the outset of the project.
Philosophy has not turned into a science. The twentieth century desire to do so can now be seen as a wide-eyed scientism, the response of a culture that was so enamoured with the success of science that it sought to replicate it in every field. A century on the idea seems far-fetched. Under-labourers are all very well but not so effective if each is challenging the others work. Logic was meant to cut through dispute and provide definitive conclusions. Unsurprisingly it failed to do so. Is there anyone who seriously believes that philosophy is closer to definitive conclusions today than it was a century ago?
Well? Anyone? You can read the whole article here.
There’s an article on teaching philosophy in prisons by Alan Smith in the current issue of tpm. It’s part of a series on grassroots philosophy. Here’s an excerpt:
Time went by and I settled down with a regular group of men, mostly from D Wing. People came and went, though, as sentences ended and new guys were shipped in, and this meant that there were quite regular crises as philosophy virgins were seduced into our strange ways. Philosophy attracted men who had long sentences to serve, and they brought into class the hard faced generosity that gets them through the years. They said things that frightened me to death. Shayne on abortion: “If we could turn back the years, Sim, wouldn’t it be better, knowing as we do now that you were going to turn out to be a murdering nut-case who’s been nothing but a drain on society, wouldn’t aborting you have been a good idea?”
Intersting stuff, philosophy in the wider world. You can read the whole thing here: “Captive Audience“.
Filed under philosophy, tpm
slapping together carefully editing the next issue of tpm, and it occurs to me that I’ve never mentioned the fact that each week we put some content from the magazine on our site for free. Follow these links for some excellent articles.
Here’s an interview with Frank Jackson on the knowledge argument.
Here’s Jennifer Saul on psychological biases and women in philosophy.
Here’s James Ladyman on the Higgs.
Here’s Catherine Z Elgin on disagreement.
Here’s Carolyn Korsmeyer on taste.
Here’s Mohan Matthen’s review of Nagels’ Mind and Cosmos.
Here’s Massimo Pigliucci’s review of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?.
The articles about disagreement still fascinate me. In a sentence: if you disagree with someone who’s just as reasonable, well informed and rational as you, should you stand by your guns or suspend judgement? Both alternatives result in a mess, yet for just about anything you can think of, there’s an intellectual equal who disagrees with you. Your choice: dogmatism or sceptism.
Filed under philosophy, tpm
Here’s an article I wrote for the Guardian CiF Belief, called ‘Philosophy: a case of Sunday afternoon fever’. It’s about a charity operating in north London, called the Stuart Low Trust, which provides companionship and puts on events for people who might have some experience of mental illness. Each Sunday, they meet to discuss philosophy, and what’s amazing about it all is the openness the participants have to new ideas. Compared to academic debates, where people largely already know what they think and just fight their corner, the people taking part here do so because philosophical questions are very much live ones for them. Who should I be? How should I live? What matters? All of that is a work in progress. Of course, it’s work in progress for others too, even established academics, but somehow the people taking part in the Stuart Low Trust have a better grip on this fact than others do.
I admire, even envy that a bit.
I was a panelist in an event last week, put on by the Advertising Association, called Lead 2013. We took took up the subject of trust and brands, beginning with the question, ‘What can be done to rebuild trust between brands and people in 2013?’ I think part of the trouble with the question is that trust does not exist between people and brands. Trust is something that exists in the mind of a vulnerable person — a person who has to trust because he or she lacks certainty or anyway the power to make something happen.
I said we’re living in an age of distrust — think about scandals in banking, politics, the media and military, even organized religion. The trouble is that once trust is lost it’s difficult to regain, and that’s partly because any effort to change things has to recognize that trust is more like an emotion than a belief. If you miss that feature of trust, you might try to rebuild trust by pointing to facts or taking oaths. But because trust is at least partly emotive, you can’t simply decide to trust someone any more than you can decide to love someone. It’s not something you can will, not something in your power to choose to do. Of course, you can say, right, I’m going to have to trust you, and make a judgement call, but paradigm cases of trust are not like that at all.
Some philosophers have said that trust is optimism about the goodwill of another person towards us, and I think that sounds about right. When we lose that optimism, we can’t be simply talked back into it. When a cheating spouse tries to reestablish trust, it can’t happen just after a list of facts and oaths and promises. There’s no shortcut. Time, transparency, and a change in behaviour — building within oneself the property of trustworthiness — is the only way to regain trust once it’s lost.
So if there’s horse meat in a burger you’ve sold, the only way to reestablish trust is to do a very human thing, something human beings have evolved to judge extremely accurately: you have to promise to do better, and this is the difficult bit, you have to mean it.
The latest issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine has hit the stands. I got the chance to interview Frank Jackson for it. It was particularly fun for me, as Jackson’s famous Knowledge Argument for dualism was the subject of a part of my PhD thesis several thousand years ago. The argument itself is one of those rare things in philosophy, a crystal clear thought experiment that seems to just flatten the opposition, and you can get it up and running in a few sentences.
“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes…. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”
If you think that Mary knew all the physical facts but learns something when she first sees red, then there’s more to know than just physical facts – by hypothesis, she had all those already. So if she learns something, physicalism is false, because it leaves out part of the world she discovers on experiencing red.
Remarkably, Jackson has rejected the dualist conclusion of the argument — he’s a latter day physicalist. You can read the whole interview on tpm’s site, right here.