Author Archives: Julian Baggini - Page 3

Hobbes podcast

This is a 10-minute podcast about the first Thomas Hobbes Festival of Ideas. It includes contributions from John Cottingham, Anthony Kenny, Jonathan Ree, Finn Spicer and Mary Warnock. It’s a bit of an experiment and I’d like to know what you think.
Hobbes Festival Podcast
(This is Julian, logging in as guest only because I can’t find or remember my username)

A few updates

I feel a bit bad for having blogged so little here for quite some time, but the others are doing a grand job, so I don’t think readers are missing out. However, I thought I would update you on some of the things that have kept me away, part as excuse and part as unashamed advertising.
First up, I’ve got a new book out on the use of rhetoric and bad arguments. It’s available on Amazon UK now and will be published in the US by Plume next year. There was a very nice review of it in the FT. Butterflies and Wheels readers will recognise that the book grew out of a series I wrote for them a few years back.
I’ve also made a programme for BBC Radio Four, which despite the title, isn’t really about philosophy. You can listen to it here until this Saturday. It was one of the choices in Sunday’s Pick of the Week.
Apart from that. I’ve been busy with the usual mix of journalism, talks and events, and bits of radio, as well as, of course, editing tpm.
So my neglect of Talking Philosophy really isn’t a matter of being lazy or not caring!

The boundaries of sanity

There seem to me to be two extreme, and implausible, strands of thought knocking around in the area of what we might problematically call “mental health”. The first leads to the medicalisation or pathologising of any kind of psychic distress. You know the kind of thing: fried chicken lickin’ anxiety, boorish party phobia, post egg and spoon race defeat trauma. The other is the view that there’s no such thing as mental illness at all (even if you call it something other than illness).
I’m not going to attempt to argue as to why these two extremes should be rejected. All I want to do here is ask how, if we agree the extreme views are both wrong, we distinguish between ordinary distress and differences in thought, and pathological states or conditions.
I’m not aware of a good way of drawing this line (which is not to say there isn’t one). It seems probable that no line could ever be sharp here, but as we all know (I hope) real distinctions often have fuzzy borderlines and grey areas between them. So let’s not fall into the trap of saying that hard borderline cases show the distinction can’t be real.
I can think of two criteria that can be used, each necessary but not sufficient as conditions. One is to do with having irrational ways of thinking. Of course, we all of us think irrationally, more often than we might wish to believe. But there is a sliding scale and go beyond a certain point and the irrationality is pathological.
The second is to do with functionality. So, for example, a severely depressed person can’t get on with life, and nor can someone with a paranoid fear of door handles.
Colloquially, we do describe as “totally mad” people’s whose world views are wildly incoherent. But we don’t think of them as suffering from a pathological condition unless this creates functional problems. The person who believes we’re all lizards is merely eccentric, just as long as he can do things like hold down a job and a relationship, and isn’t a danger to anyone.
It’s also the case that dysfunction is not a sign of mental pathology if it is for good reasons. One can imagine someone for whom being depressed is a perfectly rational response to what they are going through, for example.
So although perhaps extreme dysfunction without apparent incoherence of belief could be seen as pathological, as could extreme incoherence without dysfunction, in practice, a pathological state of mind seems to require both. I say this descriptively: this is how, in fact, we seem to distinguish between the sane and the insane, even if we don’t use such un-PC language.
I have no problem with the fact that it implies a continuum, and that there have be judgement calls as to whether someone is “far enough gone” to be considered a pathological case. But it still seems unsatisfactory. Surely there are some better criteria than these? As far as I know (I could well be wrong), the diagnostic manual DSM lists criteria for specific “disorders” but does not specify general principles for identifying something as a mental disorder.
Cab anyone do better or point to a better answer? I’m sure there’s a big field of work here in the philosophy of psychology and psychiatry.
(Underlying neurological dysfunction won’t work, by the way, because in order for that to cause a mental disorder, we have to decide that the disorder is real at the psychological level. So, for example, someone who sees sounds and hears colours has a weird brain, but they are not mentally ill. The individuation of mental disorders cannot take place at the neural level, even if in certain cases we find that neural indicators are 100% reliable predictors of them.)

Philosophy’s best kept secret?

I’m planning somehting for a forthcoming issue in which we’re asking people to write about one thing in philosophy which they wish more people knew about. It could be a philosopher, a book, an incident, a concept, an institution, or something completely different.
I’d like to include some suggestions from you who read and contribute to this blog. If you’d like to make one, I’d suggest you write it off-line and then come back to post it here: it should be as well-crafted as you can make it, so it will be a good read in the magazine. Go up to about 400 words, though shorter contributions are also welcome. We want the choices to be different and personal, so feel free to include autobiographical material, if relevant.
By posting to this thread you give us permission to reprint your contribution in tpm. Please add your real name if you’d like to be credited. Obviously, I cannot yet say how many contributions will be used in this way.
Looking forward to reading what you suggest.

Note (added 22 September). By “best kept secrets” I do not mean your own theories which you wish more people knew about.

Nagel scoops £0.5million prize

This just announced (18:30 CET).
Thomas Nagel is one of four winners of the 2008 Balzan Prize, in the category of moral philosophy. He wins 1 million Swiss francs (around $890,000 or £500,000), half of which is to go to research projects.
Announcing the award, Salvatore Veca, Professor of Political Philosophy at Pavia, said it was

“For his fundamental and innovative contributions to contemporary ethical theory, relating to both individual, personal choices and collective, social decisions. For the depth and coherence of his original philosophical perspective, which is centered on the essential tension between an objective and subjective point of view. For the originality and fecundity of his philosophical approach to some of the most important questions in contemporary life”.

Congratulations Tom, and at least that’s one prize Charles Taylor hasn’t won. (Previous winners are listed here.)

From the World Congress

Korea’s Prime Minister, Han Seung-soo of Korea, opened the 22nd World Congress of Philosophy in Korea on Tuesday. Over 2,000 delegates from 102 countries are expected to attend the 8-day long conference, which is held every five years.
Although the Congress was first held in Paris in 1900, this is the first time it has been hosted in Asia.
The theme of the Congress if Rethinking Philosophy Today, and it would seem to need rethinking if such global gatherings are going to result in genuine exchange. The diverse approaches on display at the conference range from Jainism, Buddhism and Confucianism, through to Hegelian dialectics, hermeneutics and Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Although all are welcome into the philosophy family for the congress, it is not clear to what extent the delegates actually study the same subject at all.
Nevertheless, the opening speeches were something of a call to arms, with philosophy frequently being invoked as a necessary aid to solving world problems. Peter Kemp, President of FISP (The International Federation of Philosophical Societies) said that “we need philosophy, we need the power of the word. This need is the deepest drive we have.” Of philosophers, he said they “may warn humanity against hidden destructive forces or carelessness that might be disastrous.”
I’m here in Seoul, exhibiting and reporting for tpm. I’ve posted two blogs about the Congress at the Guardian’s Comment is Free, here and here. More should follow, and I’m also hoping to post some things more directly here, but it’s busy, tiring, and hot!

Podcasts are us (sort of)

tpm has sponsored some podcasts made by the Bristol Festival of Ideas, which you might find interesting. The first is now available to listen to (instructions below) and features Susan Greenfield, Ray Tallis and Alan Sokal. (Click on their individual names for 10-minute mini-interviews for each one if you’d prefer.) It’s a packed half-hour programme. There are plenty of matters arising to discuss and so rather than pick out one issue, I thought I’d start this as an open thread to pursue whatever emerges of interest.
This is a direct link to the MP3 file, or you can subscribe to the RSS feed for Festival of Ideas podcasts, or if you have itunes, you can get them here.

Is Charles Taylor the world’s most important philosopher?

He’s recently co-written a report for the Quebec government, he won the $1.6 million Templeton Prize last year, and now Charles Taylor has won the “Japanese Nobel”: the Kyoto Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Arts and Philosophy. The award is bestowed by The Inamori Foundation which said:

A philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, Dr. Taylor, 76, will receive the award for constructing a social philosophy that actively pursues the harmonious coexistence of diverse cultures. By advocating “communitarianism” and “multiculturalism” from the perspective of “holistic individualism,” Dr. Taylor has developed an enlightened philosophy that allows people of different historical, traditional, and cultural backgrounds to retain their multiple identities while living together peacefully.
Dr. Taylor reasons that dialogue is the primary vehicle through which people develop identities and frameworks for determining what is good, what is valuable, what they should do, and what they support or oppose. In his view, human beings are “self-interpreting animals” that act with a sense of value and purpose ― they articulate everyday feelings and moral intuitions into language and act according to their own opinion of values and goals.
Dr. Taylor established a “philosophical anthropology” using the foundations of phenomenology, hermeneutics, and language-game theory in opposition to the atomistic view of the “self” and the concepts of human identity proposed by methodological individualism and behaviorism. He also opposes modern utilitarianism for leaving value judgments to the feelings and preferences of the atomistic selves, arguing that individuals are “situated selves” embedded in the fabric of social relations.
Key to Dr. Taylor’s “communitarianism” and “multiculturalism” philosophies is the concept of “recognition,” in which he contrasts the “dialogical self” with the “monological self” and offers “freedom in situation” in place of “absolute freedom.” He proposes that human beings can flourish only if their identities are recognized by others ― and, accordingly, that community bonds are necessary to realize individual autonomy. His principles provide rational grounds for the dignity of human beings living a deep diversity, and for their demands for recognition.

Taylor gets 50 million yen (approximately US$460,000), a diploma and a medal of 20-karat gold, in November. Does this confirm that in terms of influence, reputation and recognition, Charles Taylor is now the most important living philosopher in the world?

Has philosophy responded adequately to big events?

For our tenth anniversary issue of tpm we put ten 10 questions to ten leading thinkers. Here is how they answered just one of them: Has philosophy responded adequately to the big events and debates of the last decade, such as climate change and the post-9/11 world? (The issue is still available to order here.)

Simon Blackburn:
Probably not, but then it is not very clear what kind of response we are professionally able to make. On climate change, I suppose we might start teaching stoicism again. On 9/11 we might try revisiting Clifford’s famous essay on the ethics of belief.

Jerry Fodor:
I suppose so; though I don’t think that responding to such issues is plausibly a philosophical responsibility. Has Art History responded adequately to the post-9/11 world? Why should philosophy be different?

AC Grayling:
No, there has not been enough response from philosophy; these are quintessentially matters that require exploration and debate, clarification, vigorous challenges to our too-ready reactions and our fears, and constantly renewed perspectives on how to think about them and how our world might best be managed in response to them.

Jaakko Hintikka:
No. Philosophers have failed to come up with constructive suggestions either on the practical or on the ideological level. For an important instance, philosophers could and should have combated much more determinedly the fundamentalist forces within different religions – Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim – that are the greatest divisive force in the world today. Constructive responses that could come to grips with the realities have here and elsewhere been hampered by the anti-scientist and relativistic biases of postmodernist philosophies.

Alasdair MacIntyre:
Academic philosophers are by and large no more competent at making political choices than other relatively well to do, comfortable, professionalised, middle class people. That is to say, not very competent. The question is: Who is paying the costs of climate change, post-9/11 conflicts, and globalisation? The answer is, as usual: those least able to pay them. Philosophers, including myself, have not focussed sufficiently on this issue, one that brings out the continuing relevance of Marx.

Colin McGinn:
No, but it hasn’t responded inadequately either – which would be worse. What would an adequate response look like? Philosophers should respond, but it’s not clear to me that philosophy should. (Compare responding to the Holocaust.) On the other hand, if someone came up with something genuinely useful philosophically, I’d be all ears.

Martha Nussbaum:
I think that there is a lot more work to be done! On issues connected to the entitlements of animals there has been some good work, and it is exciting to see the menu of theoretical options being expanded (especially by Christine Korsgaard’s recent Tanner Lectures). On the environment more generally, there is certainly a need for more good work. Issues of global justice have begun to receive the attention they deserve, and the nation-based paradigms with which we have all been operating have begun to be challenged, but there is a long way to go. I think that doing good work in the areas you name requires extensive empirical knowledge, and therefore partnerships with other disciplines such as economics, law, and history. Philosophers have not always formed such partnerships. However, I believe that the profession is now much more receptive to such empirically-informed work than it was in the recent past. I would like to see more first-rate philosophers turning to the topic of global justice, so that we would simply have more strong alternatives on our menu. Philosophy advances by argument and contestation, and we need more powerful worked-out theories of different types.

John Searle:
Problems like climate change or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are not really specifically philosophical problems. However, the capacity to reason philosophically has an important bearing on these problems, as it does on any serious intellectual problem, and I will illustrate that by discussing some of the points about “the war on terrorism”. There are two important philosophical mistakes made in current American and Coalition policy, and one of these may actually have some practical importance. The first point is that the expression “the war on terrorism” embodies a category mistake. If it is meant to be taken literally, “terrorism” names a method, and in the sense that one can have a war against Germany or Japan, it makes no sense to say we are having a war against terrorism. It would be like having a war against transportation. Now one might say, “Well, we are having a war against all terrorists.” But that, of course, is not true. There are many sorts of terrorists, such as the Basque terrorists in Spain or Irish terrorists in Northern Ireland, that we have not attempted to fight a war against. And this leads to the second point. In order to make sense of the war on terrorism, we have to interpret the concept of war metaphorically. Is it an apt metaphor for our current situation? I think the use of this term embodies a second mistake, which is the result of a very common fallacy, both in philosophy and among people in general. It is the fallacy of assuming that big events must have big causes. Because the attacks of September 11 were big events, we assume they must have big causes. But in fact, as far as we can tell, they did not. Here is the situation. Some years before September 11, there was an attempt made by similarly motivated Muslim terrorists to destroy the World Trade Center. They failed. Because they failed, no one took the attempt very seriously. They should have. Some years later, a group with the same inspiration – a group of fanatics – once again mounted an attack on the World Trade Center and other targets. This time they were both better organised and luckier. But the group (or groups) that mounted the first attack and the second never had more than a few thousand members, and is simply not a massive military force. Because the second attack was a big event, it was treated as if it merited a major international military response. In fact, the people we were fighting against were as confused and as fanatical as those we had dealt with before, or rather, failed to deal with before. However, once we announced that we were at “war”, we accorded them a status and a dignity that they had not previously had, and provided them with an ideal recruiting platform. As far as I can tell, al Qaeda has far more members now than it did before September 11, 2001.
Also, philosophically speaking, it is important to have a sense of scale. On September 11, about 3,000 people died. A terrible tragedy. Each day about 1,000 die in the US from smoking, and since the terrorist attacks about 100,000 Americans have been murdered. There are appropriate responses, but neither “war on smoking” or “war on murder” names them.
What should we have done instead? Instead of announcing a war on terrorism we should have announced a systematic and deliberate campaign to eliminate certain forms of terrorism. Attacking Afghanistan as part of this campaign seems to me perfectly legitimate. Attacking Iraq was a mistake, if only because Iraq had nothing to do with the events of September 11.

Peter Singer:
We didn’t focus enough on climate change in the early days, before it hit the headlines. Some did – Dale Jamieson was writing about this way back in the 1980s. But it’s so obviously a key ethical issue of our times that it is surprising more was not written and said. The “post 9/11 world” came upon us more suddenly, of course, so that’s a different story. Philosophers have responded, by discussing the ethics of war, of torture, and of responses to terrorism. I’m not sure that this has been adequate, but it’s hard to say what would have been.

Slavoj Zizek
What can philosophy do today, what can it tell the general public haunted by the problems of ecology, of racism, of religious conflicts, etc.? Its task is not to provide answers, but to show how the way we perceive a problem can be part of the problem, mystifying it instead of enabling us to solve it. There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions.
Measured with this simple standard, I think the result is mixed. It is not that philosophy did not address all the big burning issues – it did, maybe even too much and too directly, not questioning enough the very form they are perceived as problems. Does the critique of religious fundamentalism really oblige us to defend liberal democracy? Does a serious engagement with ecology really oblige us to accept new forms of obscurantism?

Good news for graduates is just bad reporting

This is an interesting news story published in the new issue of tpm. It was written by our production editor, Matthew Humphrys.

Philosophy Graduates can do just about anything they want when it comes to employment, or so claimed the Guardian in November. But when TPM did some investigating of our own, a different picture began to emerge.
In the article, dated 20 November, the Guardian said that graduates with degrees in philosophy had never been in such demand in the workplace. It claimed that figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that graduates in philosophy were having better employment opportunities than ever before, resulting in a significant percentage increase in philosophy grads finding employment.
The article claimed that, “The number of all graduates in full-time and part-time work six months after graduation has risen by 9% between 2002-03 and 2005-06; for philosophy graduates it has gone up by 13%.” Philosophy graduates were no longer quite so derided as “unemployable layabouts” and were being prized by employers. Having drafted in Simon Blackburn to comment on how he can certainly see a change in the way that the public views philosophers, the newspaper went on to say, “It is particularly significant that the percentage finding full-time work six months after graduation has risen, since the number of philosophy graduates has more than doubled between 2001 and 2006.”
Other news sources and blogs repeated the claim, among them employment for students, the University of Hertfordshire, the University of Columbia (Canada), The Nigerian Student and Kenodoxia.
The only problem is that the central claims made are false. TPM spoke to Simon Kemp, the Press Secretary of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), and requested the same figures that The Guardian had received. Kemp explained to TPM that the figures show an increase in “the number rather than proportion of philosophy graduates who reported being in paid work in the two years in question. Since there were more graduates, and more respondents to the destinations survey, this is not really evidence of any increase in the rate or employment of philosophy graduates.”
Of the philosophy graduates who replied to the survey in 2002/3, 62.4% were employed 6 months after graduation. For 2005/6 this had risen to 63.1%.
It is true that there is an increase in the number of graduates studying philosophy, and this is indeed about 13%. However, the percentage going into employment remains virtually unchanged, and at 63.1%, lags more than 10% behind the 73.7% average for all graduates in 2005/6.
There is also an increase in the total number of graduates UK-wide for the same periods of 10.6%.
The drop in the unemployment rate for philosophy graduates should be considered alongside the percentage increase of students who chose to go into further study, and so do not enter the “assumed to be unemployed” category. In 2002/3, of the 1,300 full time study philosophy graduates who responded to the survey, about 8% were classed as being in further study. Of the 1,470 full time study respondents in 2005/6, this had risen to 22%.
In correspondence with the Guardian a week before the article was published, the press officer had explained to the researcher for the article that, “As you can see, there is no appreciable change in the percentage of Philosophy leavers in employment.”
TPM contacted the reporter who wrote the article in the Guardian, and she insisted that she had used the figures given to her by HESSA and HECSA.