Bartitsu at Fenton House

Garvey Buchan bartitsuBartitsu is called many things:  the West’s first mixed martial art, the fighting style of Sherlock Holmes, the Victorian gentleman’s martial art.  It was assembled from boxing, savate, cane fighting and jiu jitsu by Edward William Barton-Wright and taught in London around the start of the twentieth century.  It then more or less vanished.  Barton-Wright left some detailed instructions and photos behind, and lately game enthusiasts have resurrected the style.  For more have a look at the Bartitsu Society’s site or Tony Wolf’s indispensable The Bartitsu Compendium.

Some friends from the UCL Jitsu Club and I got together to demonstrate a little bartitsu at the Idler Garden Party last weekend — an afternoon of diversions against the backdrop of Fenton House in Hampstead.  It was an enormous amount of fun.  We had the slightly weird but pleasant experience of drinking gin, listening to a ukulele lesson, hearing a philosophy lecture, and throwing each other around in the grass — not in that order.

Some of the movements in bartitsu are instantly recognizable to people who do martial arts today, but other techniques, if you’ll pardon the pun, throw us a little — ‘Why did Barton-Wright do it that way?’ we wonder.  But of course, he was nearer the Japanese source than we are now, so we pay attention to his way of doing things.  It’s a little like martial arts archaeology, and so far it’s been hugely rewarding.

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Reputational Risk

Here’s a short interview from an event called Reuptational Risk Drivers for the Insurance Industry, at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue.  ‘Reputational Risk’ is an unfortunate name, but those attending meant much more than merely whitewashing or, as one put it, corporate social responsibility as ‘business as usual, but plant some trees too’.  Getting into moral trouble is a risk to a business’s reputation, but the motivation for doing the right thing ought to go much deeper than this — and I think, for those speaking and attending the event, it certainly does.

On the ground, it’s complicated.  For example, you might think that a company ought to have no dealings at all with businesses which operate in places with dubious human rights records.  I’m inclined to agree, but I met people who talked about the moral value of sometimes engaging with such businesses with a view to changing them for the better, improving conditions and pay and prospects generally for workers.  They’re asking hard questions —  walking away from some profitable deals rather than run the risk of making a moral mistake.  Taking part in the event was certainly eye-opening for me.

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Racist Bridges

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‘.

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Back to big thinking

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.

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Philosophy in prisons

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“.

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Free stuff from The Philosophers’ Magazine

I’m 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.

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Stuart Low Trust

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.

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