Author Archives: Rupert Read

On Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA: A new article of mine offering a ‘therapeutic’ ‘reading’ thereof

My latest film-as-philosophy effort has just been published, with SEQUENCE:

Two kinds of arguments against GM: evidentiary, and precautionary

The news hit the headlines this morning that genetic engineers in Hertfordshire want to trial plants that have been genetically-modified with genes from fish: .

There are several aspects of the arguments around this that are of philosophical interest. They relate principally to the philosophy of rhetoric, the philosophy of science and technology (epistemology, methodological issues), and the philosophy and ethics of precaution/risk. I will explore these briefly in what follows.

My closest philosophical colleague Phil Hutchinson (@phil_hutchinson) has just had a mini ‘twitter-storm’ with Mark Lynas, over this latest GM business. Phil has been making the argument that the evidence does not support the need for fish genes to be put into plants in order to produce fish oil, because the evidence does not support the claim that doing so is beneficial and necessary.
This ‘mirrors’ the argument that my other current close philosophical colleague Nassim Taleb (@nntaleb) and I (@rupertread) have recently had on twitter with Lynas (Go back to Jan.5 if you want to see this ‘twitter-storm’ from the start). Taleb and I made the argument that (e.g.) taking genes from fish and putting them into plants is reckless, because it is unprecautious: it violates the Precautionary Principle. In other words, our argument was not evidentiary but precautionary.

It seems to me that the ‘evidence’ line against GM combined with the ‘precautionary’ line against it catches GM-apologists such as Lynas in a bind. In a pincer movement.

In outline, the full (the two-pronged) case then runs roughly like this (for references to back this up, if desired, see the material on Twitter):

A GM company wants to take genes from fish and put them into a plant: specifically, in today’s furore: they want to produce Omega three GM camelina.

In brief: There is first NO conclusive evidence for heart-related benefits of Omega 3 fish oil, which demonstrate it as beneficial separate from the fish, as a supplement. There is NO evidence that we need fish oil omega 3 over and above that our bodies already convert from vegetable-based ALA Omega 3 from things like flax.

To elaborate somewhat: We’ve had over ten years of hype from food manufacturers and supplement manufacturers about the heart-benefits of fish-sourced Omega 3 oil. But the evidence for benefits is still inconclusive, at best.

Basically there are three types of Omega 3 fatty acids that humans need: ALA (found in plant oils), EPA, and DHA (found in fish oils).

ALA is in flax seeds and hemp seeds as well as other veg (brussels sprouts for example). Our bodies convert ALA in to EPA and DHA.

Over the past decade or so all sorts of wild claims have been made for the benefits of consuming a diet high in EPA and DHA fatty acids. Goldacre has some sport exposing some of the nonsense hereabouts in Bad Science.

However, there are one or two RCTs that do seem to show some benefit of a diet high in EPA and DHA Omega 3 for heart disease, but, and this is important, only when eaten as part of a fresh fish which contains it. There is simply no evidence for EPA and DHA taken as a supplement being beneficial to health. So, the real kicker is, that they cannot say for sure that it is the EPA and GLA and not just the fact that those who eat fresh fish are likely to eat healthier diets in any case and be better off, socio-economically.

So, why would anyone assume that GM camelina with EPA and DHA would work better than the _ineffective_ supplements? No reason whatsoever. Indeed, as noted, while diets high in fish oil do seem to (in a few cases) have benefits, even there it is unclear this is because of some magical properties of the oil, but rather because of other factors that might be related to a diet rich in oily fish.

So, no clear evidence at all that consumption of EPA and DHA as a supplement has health benefits.

When Phil made these points to Lynas and the GM company, they shifted ground away from talking about the alleged health benefits of omega 3 fish oil (to humans) to talking about the health benefits of feeding omega 3 fish oil to fish.

So: there really – clearly — is no clear evidence that we need EPA and DHA in any case, as our bodies convert ALA (from vegetable sources into those). Lynas et al, when pressed, concede this. They then say: this is about improving aquaculture by making fish food. But then we have the same problem: we have no reason to think that even if the GM splicing worked and they could get it into the seeds that this would work for the fish. Oily fish that are high in Omega 3 get it from the krill and shrimps they eat.

This is about salmon-farming! Not, as they tried to mislead us all this morning into thinking, about human health.

Human health would be better served by better balanced diets.

To sum up the case so far: there is no reason to see what the GM wizards are trying to put into the plant from the fish as useful for fish food if there is no evidence for the benefits of Omega 3 fish oil supplements. At this point, when forced into seeing this, the company replied that that’s allegedly why they need to do the research they are seeking to do… Which is close to a concession that there are (few or) no evidentiary grounds for thinking GM fish-omega 3 camelina will be beneficial: But of course, surprise surprise, that is not what their rep said on the Today programme this morning, nor what Lynas were arguing when Phil first responded to him.

The final phase of the argument (at the time of writing) is I think very telling. It runs thus:

Phil Hutchinson @phil_hutchinson

@Rothamsted @mark_lynas consumed as fish. Barely any conc. evidence for supplement benefits. Your version will be akin to consuming a supp.

Kate de Selincourt @Kate_de

But, @Rothamsted & @mark_lynas, since all livestock farming turns more nutrient into less, why not just eat the fish food? @phil_hutchinson

Mark Lynas @mark_lynas

@Kate_de @Rothamsted @phil_hutchinson That’s an argument for veganism. Fine by me, but hardly a realistic way to tackle overfishing.

‘Fine by me’. Lynas has essentially conceded the case. He prefers a problematic techno-fix which lacks evidential support to a behaviourial and political change that is perfectly possible (i.e. for humans to consume less (factory-farmed) fish (from which a profit can be extracted), and find their omega 3 in other ways).

That’s the evidence-based argument against GM (which has to be made in each individual case on grounds specific to that case (in other cases, the argument will be based on poor yield, or on the inputs to the GM-farming being unsustainable, or on alleged damage to human health, or on actual epidemics of superweeds, or on the desperately-problematic political economy of GM; etc etc), and can be made in each individual case I think, with the possible exception of some GM-cotton). The case benefits from a savvy understanding of the nature of evidence-based arguments, obviously, and thus from a sound philosophy of science and technology perspective. But it is essential an ‘empirical’ argument.

The precautionary argument is different. It is philosophical from the get-go. It is an argument about where the burden of proof lies.
This is in my view the deepest argument against GM: a precautionary one which shifts the burden of proof. It’s no longer about one trying to find a particular counter-argument to claims that GM-enthusiasts are making: it’s suggesting that the onus is rather on THEM to establish the safety of the technology that they are puffing.

The precautionary case against GMOs, in brief, runs thus: If we (for example) take a gene from a fish and put it in a plant, a move utterly without precedent in the whole of evolution, we are recklessly fiddling with and unavoidably changing a system we don’t fully understand and doing something novel whose consequences we cannot possibly predict. This is a reckless gamble, stupid in the short- to medium- term, unconscionably short-sighted and selfish in the long term, as we risk imposing a world of new danger on those who are yet even to be born. We are launching a vast uncontrolled natural (sic.) experiment. The consequences for superweeds, for damaging biodiversity, for creating dangerous mutations, and possibly directly for human health, are unforeseeable. There is a strong precautionary argument against GM, or at the very least in favour of keeping some parts of the world (e.g. an island-nation!) GM-free. IF GM could be properly safely researched to determine what bad ‘side effects’ it may have, then I would favour such research, in good empirical fashion. But it mostly can’t – because it can only be properly ‘researched’ in this way outside the laboratory. In this regard, it differs profoundly from most medical advances, for instance.
This is the terrible dilemma of field trials for GM: The more extensive they are, the more they resemble conditions in the real world, the longer-term they are, then the more reliable they are – BUT also, the more dangerous they are. The more likely it is that they will escape their confines, affect the broader ecosystem, produce unexpected and dangerous drift of genetic materials, etc. . One can’t get the evidence one needs to assess GM with without creating vast uncontrolled new risks.
If we in Britain as a nation contaminate our countryside with GMOs, then that can never be undone. Simple caution and commonsense enjoins – overwhelmingly – against such recklessness.
Defenders of GM sometimes say that there is an absence of evidence of harm from GM. Even if this is true, it is not good enough. What the precautionary argument shows is that we need evidence of absence of harm from GM. And that is what we don’t have. And what will be very hard ever to get without taking an unconscionable risk.
That is the point of the precautionary principle.

Until we have ultra-long-term large-scale trials which cannot contaminate the surrounding countryside, then GM must be considered unsafe. Such trials are at present impossible to carry out. They might one day be possible, though I doubt that they ever will be (this is the dilemma expressed above). If they ever were, then, rather than jumping in precipitously to make a quick buck (as is happening at Rothampsted today) we would then need to wait dozens of years for the results.
In other words, I have argued that one current impossibility is to adequately research contamination, possible damage to biodiversity, etc., without actually potentially causing limitless such damage. One somehow needs long-term (generations of ) trials, in the natural environment, but contained. Something like a huge part-permeable dome that somehow lets in what you want to let in (e.g. sun, rain) in an unaltered way without letting out the GM-crops, over an area of many square miles. Good luck with that…

I am sometimes accused of inconsistency, in making this kind of argument. For, as I’ve made clear in previous posts on this site, I am, like any reasonable person, a fan of climate science, which is vital to the survivability of our species, as we breach the limits to growth. So, why not of ‘GM science’? But this alleged parallel with manmade climate change is very weak. That is a matter of science; while GM is a technology.
Of course genetics is science, but genetic engineering, as the name suggests, is not: it is engineering, i.e. technology. GM is a technology, and so we should be very wary of GM-advocates dressing themselves up in the clothing of science. It is not ‘anti-science’ to oppose GM technology. There are strong empirical and precautionary arguments for doing so.

The parallel in relation to climate is with geo-engineering, not with climate science! And I’m no more a fan of genetic engineering than of geo-engineering, which involves perhaps the ultimate hubristic lack of precaution (or of ethics)… That is: It seems to me, as I’ve sketched, that there are profound philosophical reasons not to be a fan of either of these forms of engineering…

[[Big thanks to Phil Hutchinson for contributing very generously to the researching and writing of this piece, and for our ongoing joint work on 'evidence-based medicine'. Thanks also to Nassim N. Taleb for his influence on my thinking in this area, through the dialogue we are having on it and the arguments we are making against others over it. But responsibility for the piece is mine alone.]]

Thinkingfilm: announcement of new group-blog on film-philosophy

Colleagues; check out my new blogsite,
This is a site for serious film-as-philosophy type stuff. I think a lot of you will like it.

[See also my earlier post there:]

If you have comments, probably better to leave them there than here.

Nature in the ‘anthropocene’ age?: Mediating between Monbiot and Poole


Nature in the ‘anthropocene’ age?: Mediating Monbiot and Poole…


There has recently been a public spat between two public intellectuals in this country, a spat with considerable philosophical interest and underpinnings. Since both of the two concerned are friends of mine who I believe to each have an important contribution to make to thinking and action in Britain (and beyond) today, I am going to seek here to some degree to mediate their dispute.

Here is Steven Poole’s article:

And here is George Monbiot’s response:

I think they both have good points. And that there are problems with what each of them has said.

Here is the main problem with George’s approach/remarks, in my view. George relies much too much, in his riposte to Steven, on rhetorical appeals to ‘science’.

Basically, as Phil Hutchinson has put the matter in correspondence with me recently: “George Monbiot’s Goldacre-Colquhoun-style ad hominem rhetoric against non scientists is problematic. The point is that the question as to “what “nature” is” is central to this debate and to George’s thesis and one can only claim that to be a scientific and not a philosophical question if one is dogmatically committed to some form of ‘cog sci’, whereby even conceptual questions become scientific questions (because we have (pseudo-)science of concepts). I’m not so committed. George may be, but he does not argue for this and it certainly cannot be assumed without argument. How we take “nature” is what frames the whole argument. George seems oblivious to the way in which he has assumed a specific conception of nature. I subscribe to his project, but it is a political project, not a scientific project. Claiming one’s political project, however worthy and emancipatory that project is, to be scientific (and not political) has unfortunate connotations.  It is to be authoritarian. Put another way, we might ask: is “nature” a natural kind term? I would argue not. George seems to assume it is.”

Agreed. Furthermore, as Phil Hutchinson implies in this recent piece of his, which could be read as a background-primer on the problem with George M.’s approach, there is a place here too for explicitly calling for a role for PHILOSOPHY, as against science-worship. (See my previous TP salient blogs on this: Especially ; Also .)

In terms of Phil’s point that what nature is is central to the debate, framing it at a conceptual level: that is what I now wish to dwell on. Neither Steven nor George considers what I take to be the central argument which, if made, would in my view be an effective (rather than a scientistic) rejoinder from George against Steven (for it brings out the main problem with Steven’s remarks/approach): namely, that the point about rewilding is or should be that it is (or should be) a self-eliminating managerialism. (We philosophers might think here of the philosophical method of Sextus Empiricus, or of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, as analogous…) When one rewilds intelligently and completely enough, one (re)creates (eventually) something like a ‘climax’ ecosystem that then doesn’t need further (human) management.

Now, of course, we must all acknowledge that the human race is having such a vast impact on our planet that my environmental science colleagues at the University of East Anglia, where I teach, tell me that we have officially moved from the Holocene into a new era in our planet’s history: the ‘Anthropocene’. Whither nature, in the age of humans? Can one intelligibly now think our planet beyond managerialism? Is it intelligible – Steven P. suggests it probably isn’t – to think nature and rewilding without contradicting oneself?

In my view, there is still a strong role for the concept of nature in such dangerous times as we are living in (and this is the basis of my sympathy with what George is seeking to say, my political/philosophical subscription to his project, as Phil puts it). This is partly because the concept of nature is not one simple univocal concept.

As J. L. Austin would urge, the key question when the concept of ‘nature’ is invoked is: Nature, as opposed to what?

One opposed term is ‘the supernatural’. If one thinks that there actually isn’t any such thing as the supernatural (a stance that I find convincing), then everything is natural. There is an important sense then in which whatever we do is natural. Whatever changes we humans make to our world, we are simply changing nature ‘from within’. In this sense, ‘even’ Wittgenstein is probably a ‘naturalist’.

And it is useful to be clear of course that human beings are in this sense part of nature: this opposes crazy ideas (whether from traditional religion or from anthropocentric speciesism) of our alleged superiority to or separateness from the rest of nature. As John Gray has stressed ( ), a key inheritance of Darwinism is an understanding of the radical sense in which we are animals, part of nature, not separate at all.

But the term ‘nature’ can also be usefully opposed to other things: such as ‘culture’, or (similarly) ‘nurture’. Now, there is a sense in which culture is simply natural for humans (A sense indeed that I explicate in the first chapter of my PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE: ). But there is also such a thing as what happens when one lets nature take its course: think for instance of simply letting a wound heal, as opposed to bandaging it up and applying medicines to it, etc.

In this sense, there are plenty of things which (unlike the supernatural) exist but which are not natural, or at least not only or fully natural. In relation to ecosystems, one can distinguish for instance between those which human beings attempt to manage, and those in which nature takes its course. (Nature in this latter sense is sometimes called ‘wild nature’. That, roughly, is what rewilding aims to restore.)

I think it is important that we don’t lose sight of this meaning of the word ‘nature’. I think it is important that we don’t get overawed by the scale of our intrusion into the planet’s ecosystems. For, while it is true that there are increasingly few ‘natural disasters’ in which humanity doesn’t have a hand (it is becoming harder and harder to call hurricanes ‘acts of God’, for example, as it becomes increasingly clear that humanity’s hand is, sadly, present in strengthening and worsening hurricanes: see for instance ), it would be a mistake to derive from that the conclusion that the dawning of the Anthropocene makes it impossible to talk about nature at all any more, except as opposed to the supernatural. In fact, arguably it makes it more important than ever. For, if we to row back from our calamitous and hubristic interference with our planet’s climatic system, we are going to need some sense of the direction to row back in. And part of that direction, crucially, is toward restoring rich biodiverse largely-natural ecosystems (See on this for instance the final chapter of ). Genuine precaution, rather than the senseless multiplication of potential harms, recommends that we reduce our impact as a species, and engage less in ‘Promethean’ hubristic activities or ambitions which seek, hopelessly, to manage the entire Earth ecosystem.

As Nassim Taleb has argued, nature is wiser than us across a large range of cases (See for instance ). To give it up as a lost cause would be catastrophic.

So; George Monbiot relies too much in his arguments against Steven on the alleged authority of ‘science’ – where actually it is politics and philosophy that matter. But; Steven Poole relies too much in his arguments against George on the alleged necessary managerialism that makes appeals to nature doubtful – where actually it is the creative self-destruction of managerialism that ‘going feral’ and restoring functioning ecosystems aims to midwife.


Is this – have I now offered — a way to reconcile what is wrong and right with what both have said in their spat? Does the present piece yield more light than heat? I hope so. Let the debate then recommence…



[Thanks, obviously, to Phil Hutchinson [ ] for vital input into this piece.]

Moralism and politics

Colleagues may I think be interested in a controversial book review of mine, just out in PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS.
Have a read, and do comment here with your reactions. I’m interested.

Why Psychology Ain’t Science

Those interested in the post-NightWaves ( ) debate raging on Twitter on this topic, may wish check out my ‘Rupert Read’ twitterstream ( ). In any case, here, for those interested, and between teaching (and so in very brief), are some more thoughts — in more than 140 characters, on this important topic…:

[Note: if you haven't heard the programme, I suggest you do that first, at; go 35 minutes in.]

I see no reason to quarrel with Keith Laws’s claim that psychologists selectively handle, frame etc their data in order to present novel positive findings and that this way of doing their work is systemic and fits well with journals’, editors’ and reviewers’ worrying desire for novelty for the sake of it, etc. . So there is some bedrock agreement between Laws and I. But I am unsure as to whether Laws appreciates what the real – deep — differences are between psychology and disciplines like geology, astronomy and physics. And does he really have a good understanding of how such sciences operate, or is he wedded to a simplistic picture, namely a Popperian one? If one is making the claim that Psychology, it if adopted a ‘rigorously’ Falsificationist methodology, would be more like other sciences, then it would be helpful to be confident that other sciences had adopted such a methodology themselves! And I have zero such confidence, for reason I will explain.

It seems to me that Laws treats truth as the sole scientific virtue much as Rawls does justice with regards to institutions (see the opening of Rawls’s A THEORY OF JUSTICE – as critiqued by me for instance here: (paper published in the Proceedings of the Kirchberg Wittgenstein Colloquium, a few years back)). Rejecting a theory as false can be called finding a truth, but is it an interesting, significant truth or is it a mere triviality? There is nothing scientific in piling up truth upon truth. More needs to be said about the content of psychology, about its problems and its concepts. As I pointed up in the programme: Kuhn would suggest that improved qualitative understanding is what serious scientific advance is about, and that Popperian Falsificationism is an almost-complete misunderstanding of how real science actually works (Because all theories are born refuted; because if science were as Popper insisted it should be, then it would (ironically) be more like much philosophy or ‘social science’ than real science (because scientists would always be tearing everything up and starting all over again, rather than progressing); because Popper missed the massive phenomenon of ‘normal science’; & crucially because science needs to be based in a shared qualitative understanding of science based normally in a widely-accepted breakthrough).

Roughly: Does psychology have a ‘paradigm’? It looks in fact that it has too many (viz.: psychologIES), or none, rather than one. (For explication, see the relevant chapters of my and Sharrock’s KUHN (Polity, 2002), and our shortly-forthcoming piece in Kindi’s edited collection marking the 50th anniversary of Kuhn’s STRUCTURE, on social/human ‘science’ vs. natural science. Cf. also what I said in my NightWaves appearance on the 50th anniversary of the STRUCTURE: ).

Sure enough, Laws demonstrates that the formal requirements of statistical method are not adhered to in psychology and that in cases where they are they might still leave room for gerrymandering (Why they do so in my view takes us partly back to psychology’s concepts and partly back to the comparison to other sciences/disciplines – as I mentioned in my first remarks in the programme). But suppose these problems were in fact solved through enforced replication. Would psychology fare any better? Granted its house would be orderly in a sense, but would it be closer to being a science? My suggestion is that things might, ironically, then be even worse: because psychology would then look more like the scientific image of science, while not actually being any closer to being or being able to be the kind of discipline that Kuhn talks about, when he talks – on the basis, recall, of extensive work as a historian of science – of the nature of actual sciences. (For more detail on why, see my and Sharrock’s KUHN, and also (and especially) my recent WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIENCES. In particular, Part 2 of the latter dissects some claims on the part of psychologists to match what (in Part 1 of the book) I argue real science is: roughly, Kuhnian puzzle-solving within a research tradition, in a field that is not one that we construct and inhabit just by virtue (following here Schutz and Garfinkel and Wittgenstein) of being competent social actors. (Cf. on this also my, Hutchinson’s and Sharrock’s THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE.).)

If psychology were indeed a Popperian-style science it wouldn’t be a very good science – the operations which are designed to replicate (sic.!) the procedures of ‘genuine sciences’ are only pale imitations of their originals and the attempt to deliver ‘scientific achievements’ by means of ‘[allegedly] scientific procedures’ doesn’t yield any genuinely powerful findings, just vast and sprawling literatures and vast and weak databases. For, of course, wearing the outer trappings of science doesn’t make something into a science. But: psychology doesn’t need to be one – better understanding doesn’t only come from science. To think that it does is scientism.
My kind (and also Laws’s kind) of criticisms of our modern pseudo-sciences are regularly issued (and equally regularly disregarded) by the practitioners and methodologists and observers of those pseudo-sciences. To put the point polemically: Established Psychology is one of those juggernauts that Wittgenstein didn’t like, and rightly so. (See again the 4 programmes archived at for my take on this, especially the NIGHTWAVES special on Wittgenstein and my recent discussion with Glaser on scientism and ‘Enlightenment’.)
Where Popper can be useful, as Nassim Taleb reminds us, is in a different way to that proposed by Laws and assumed by worryingly-many psychologists: Namely, in undercutting the pretensions of ‘social/human science’ to be able to model and predict the future. In opening our minds instead to the necessary presence in the human world of ‘black swans’.
A valuable exercise would be to follow the procedure of Lucas and of ‘Goodhart’s Law’ (implicit in 2.4 of my WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIE NCES, and cf. ) and to look into the extent to which it is conceptually absurd to think of Psychology as a timeless body of knowledge, because of the extent of its historicity and of absorption of any teaching it has into what we know and do (and thus adaptation of our expectations etc, and undercutting of that teaching). What has been done for Economics needs doing for Psychology too, before the latter results in some analogue caused by the latter of the credit crunch/crash… . And hereabouts, as I pointed out in the programme (and on twitter), is then another severe limit on the extent to which Psychology is in principle scientifisable: The nature of human learning, and the way in which Psychology feeds back into our society, makes Psychology constitutively ill-suited to being genuinely scientific in nature and outcome (because psychology is inherently unpredictable; by which I mean: there are inherent limits on its predictability, limits far deeper than those present in (e.g.) quantum phenomena. Limits analogous to those sketched by Taleb vis a vis Economics.).
Ironically: the more impact Psychology has, the less like a science – the less like chemistry or astronomy, etc. – it can be. Psychology cannot be scientific because our psychology plays a dance with it (psychological subjects inherently resist (or sometimes, sadly, welcome – but again, actively) objectification – see on this Michel Henry’s BARBARISM, and Merleau-Ponty’s magnificent manifesto of anti-psychologism, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF PERCEPTION), while in actual sciences there is a more simple dialectic of subject and object.
I could go on, talking for instance about why Psychology just ain’t in the head; but this is I hope sufficient for now, to indicate the bases of my disquiet, and to provide some sources.
In sum and in short, then: Laws’s are familiar problems to anyone who thinks about rather than buys into professionalised social/human science including psychology, and it is helpful of him to have raised them, and pointed out ways in which Psychology does not live up to its main corporate (Popperian) self-image. But this tells us nothing about whether such a self-image is actually desirable. Law’s paper doesn’t address the serious question – what does all this (i.e. what Laws tells us) actually tell us about the aggregate value of that vast multitude of studies already out there? I would hazard that that value is, unfortunately, far lower than most Psychologists would like us to believe. Laws and his friends are too concerned with the processing of Psychological work, and not concerned enough with the content of what’s being processed.

[With thanks to Wes Sharrock and Leonidas Tsilipakos for input.]

Don’t throw out the Feminist baby with the Burchill bathwater

The controversy over Julie Burchill’s unpleasant headline-grabbing article on some ‘trans’-activists’ attacks on her mate Suzanne Moore rumbles on in the blogosphere, as the Observer promise to look into whether or not to have Burchill write future columns for them:
I aim here to essay some philosophical and political reflections on this matter. My take on the controversy includes this: Burchill is Burchill. She is (and arguably always has been) a controversialist who lives off creating outrage. Her column was deliberately unpleasant; the Observer should have reined it in, or spiked it. But, leaving Burchill’s agent provocateur-ism to one side now: I have some sympathy with Suzanne Moore, Bea Campbell ( ), Julie Bindel and even Germaine Greer over this issue: The way they have at times been targeted and criticised is unpleasant. There IS a Feminist case against some of the discourse of the trans lobby. I hope that point doesn’t get lost in the anti-Burchill clamour.
Readers of this site will be aware that I am by no means an uncritical admirer of Julie Bindel: . And, as a Feminist-identified man, my own taste in Feminism is different in some important respects to that of the above-named group: I generally favour a Radical Feminism attuned closely to the critiques of ‘essentialism’ that Jane Flax, Nancy Fraser and others pioneered.
BUT to be a critic of gender essentialism is one thing; to seek to dissolve the category of ‘woman’ altogether, in favour of a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman, quite another. As Richard Rorty used to argue: ‘woman’ is an experiential category and a political category. It has, I would submit (and here I am simply echoing mainstream Feminist ideas) a material basis in lived experience including bodily experience, and it has a political reality and a political point. As both Rorty and Carol Gilligan rightly hold: so long as there is patriarchy, so long as there is oppression of women, then there is likely to be a ‘different voice’, there is certainly a need for Feminism: and Feminism starts with women being allowed to define themselves and to carve out spaces for themselves.
Trans women will say that they are exactly that: women being allowed to define themselves. But you can see the impasse here: If women find themselves being told by some with male genitalia etc. that they are obliged to accept the latter as women, because they ‘define’ themselves as so, that is hardly a knock-down argument. Take an analogy: Imagine that some people regard themselves within themselves as disabled, as missing a limb. Are disabled people obliged to regard those people as already part of the disabled community? I would suggest: obviously not. (And note: this is NOT even a philosopher’s made-up example. Tragically, there are people who want to have one or more limbs amputated, who want to become disabled: )
The identity of the group of women starts from clear cases. The existence of grey areas does nothing to challenge this. (For detailed argument to this conclusion, through a broadly-Wittgensteinian discussion of the sorites and vagueness, see Chapter 6 of my new book, discussed here: ). It is not reasonable, it is not feasible, for those wanting entry to any group to act as if they have already magically gained such entry just by virtue of wanting entry. I will discuss this point in more detail, below.
So: Burchill has almost certainly done Moore et al a disservice. But the questions that Bindel, Moore et al have raised about the relationship of trans-sexualism to Feminism / to women remain genuine questions – they shouldn’t be tarred with Burchill’s brush. The point of MY intervention is just to seek to help ensure that we don’t miss the nuances of this difficult debate between Bindel & Moore & some other Feminists on the one hand and some trans-activists on the other, in the hurly-burly of this ‘political panic’ of attacks on Burchill for her attacks on transgender people.
So, two important points:
1) That there is a genuine, complicated question within Feminism about whether trans-women can or should in every or all respects be regarded straightforwardly as women (They don’t have periods, they don’t experience menopause; they chose to be (to become) women rather than having been brought up gendered female; etc. etc). It is complicated. Does feeling psychologically as if you are a woman and making certain changes to your body as a consequence make you a woman? Or first, a more basic question: Is it enough, in order to BE a woman, to psychically identify as one? To this second question, we must surely answer: no. (It it were, then it would presumably be enough to be disabled to psychically identify as disabled; it would be enough to be black to psychically identify as black; etc.)
At this point, it may be helpful to introduce another element to the discussion. To use the term that has in the course of this spat made the journey from academia to the blogosphere, identities are intersectional: many aspects make up our identities and this is what intersectionality as an approach tries to emphasise. One’s social class, one’s gender, one’s sexuality, one’s ethnicity, one’s political and moral commitments all intersect in such a way as to create one’s identity. Talking of intersectionality, as some already have, should alert us to the different intersecting identities that a trans-woman and non-trans-woman have, and therefore guard against endless arguments over real identity.
Are the trans-activists who pushed Moore off Twitter saying that women have no right to a say on who gets to be a woman?? Or again: Should non-trans-women similarly have the absolute right to define once and for all the term woman?? We should see that our identities are complexes of many different intersecting aspects, and recognise that just as these bring us close to those who share similar aspects they might also distance us from others, including the very people whose identity we might wish to share.
And this means that, as well as a symmetry, there is an asymmetry here: Women do not have an absolute once and for all right to define who they are. But they are do have more of a say than others as to who they are (and who they are not / who are not they), right now. Our individualist age would be taking a step into utter absurdity, if it were to say that any individual by virtue of feeling a certain way can magic themselves into any group-identity.
Do the mass of women who did not go through the process of sex-reassignment — ordinary women, so-called ‘cissexuals’ — have no right to point out some differences between themselves and trans-women? I think they surely do have such a right, including the right to point to a broad mass of broadly (albeit not universally) shared, overlapping experiences that they tend to share. Hopefully, they will have the heart to recognise the difficulties specific to the trans experience, and the feeling of commonality that the transsexual has with women. But hopefully too, those gendered male who wish to transition to female-hood will recognise that they are seeking to join a group with specific experiences some of which they have not shared, a historically-oppressed group, a group which has fought hard for the right to have spaces where women can organise together, clear of the male gaze, etc. .
It is not essentialist to point out the difference between being gendered female one’s who life and being gendered female as a result of a choice. It is not essentialist to point out certain material differences between men and women: the only question is what SIGNFICANCE to attribute to those differences. (Feminism of course argues that patriarchal societies tend to attach a wrong and excessive significance to those differences.) Does a man choosing to seek to become a member of an oppressed group (women) have the right to demand full unequivocal membership of that group and then speak as part of it without any possibility of objection? It is complicated, but it is at the very least not at all self-evident that one ought to answer that question with a Yes.
(2) While Burchill is an unpleasant controversialist who tries to create outrage, and while nothing that I write here should be interpreted as a defence of what SHE has said, there has also without doubt been some real and I think in part quite unwarranted unpleasantness from one very vocal section of the trans community against anyone, including some prominent Feminists, who dares to say out loud anything resembling (1).
Now, some trans-activists would say that what I have just written is in any case misleading, in that it makes being a transgender seem a ‘choice’ like any other, when the lived experience of trans people is that they have no choice about their gender-identification being opposite to the sexual identity they are assigned on the basis of their biology. Saying that there is no choice about making the trans-ition is, however, misleading: i) It suggests a new essentialism, which Foucaultians and some Queer Theorists would object to; it suggests that psyche is destiny (that if you are ‘a woman in a man’s body’ then you are really a woman) and, ironically, leaves no room for human experimentation or novel self-definition (i.e. for the flexibility of being able to resist society’s binarism, the insistence that you are either a man or a woman — trans-women insist on the latter, for themselves –, by creating genuinely new sexual identities); ii) It cannot make sense of the experience of another important minority that tends to get ignored in these debates: those who feel profoundly ill at ease in their bodies gender-wise and yet do NOT choose to seek to pass as women, do NOT undergo sex-reassignment surgery, etc.
The issue that concerns Bindel etc, is whether it is good and practical Feminist politics to completely unqualifiedly open the ranks of women to some former men. I am nervous about men or trans-women insisting that it goes without saying that it IS.
When I made some brief remarks similar to the above on Facebook recently, I was accused of bordering on gender essentialism. I would point out in this connection that it is ironic to be accused of borderline gender essentialism, when what the Trans activists in question are in some cases arguing for is the right to be taken for a woman with no questions asked ONCE SEX RE-ASSIGNMENT SURGERY ETC HAS HAPPENED. For surely no-one seriously claims that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one, for the reasons I gave above; but it appears that the hardline Trans position is that having the surgery etc certainly IS. But: that amounts to believing that anatomy is identity / destiny – but that you can change your anatomy, and so change your identity / destiny. This is pretty clearly a neo-essentialism, it seems to me.
Notice furthermore that there is something deeply and viciously paradoxical about the idea that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one. For what is it that one feels like, if one feels like a woman? It can’t be that the feeling of feeling like a woman is in and of itself a complete, self-validating, ‘private’ experience, of an individual (to see why not, Wittgenstein’s anti-private-language considerations are helpful); the experience must have some content. Obviously, what the content of the experience is, and necessarily so, is: feeling like one of ‘those’. Like one of those humans who has a body of a certain kind/shape, who perhaps dresses in certain ways, etc. (Thus some Feminists are understandably nervous that some trans-women may identify women by reference to an ideal of femininity that Feminism itself, rightly, puts into question). In other words, feeling like a woman / feeling like one is a woman is necessarily defined by reference to the pre-existing class of women. This point makes it clear that trans-women are dependent on the pre-existing category of women – on (ordinary) women, in other words. In simple terms: Being a trans-woman is necessarily in part based on the idea of being someone who in some sense on at present is not. This already guarantees that the feeling that one is one of them – a woman – is not sufficient. Because such an identity-claim is precisely a claim that goes beyond / differs from what one currently is. (It is, as we might put it, a desire-claim concerning oneself, as much as an identity-claim.) And such a claim is logically dependent on the pre-existence of the group that one identifies with. It is that pre-existence that underlies the asymmetry I pointed up, above.
Now, what I am saying might be countered by saying this: Surely the ideal of feminism would be that gender identity is irrelevant when it comes to the rights, opportunities and roles available to a person? In that case, denying trans women ‘full’ womanhood is illogical, as doing so uses gender as a basis for discrimination. This may not be an ideal world but the only way to move towards one, it might be argued, is to remain true to such ideals.
In reply, I would say this: Yes, that certainly is the ideal of much feminism – but it remains an UNREALIZED ideal. Until it is realised, it is premature to criticise Feminists for retaining the category of ‘woman’. If women want all/only-women spaces, etc., then, in a still-patriarchal society, they should certainly be allowed to create them. It is not true that to move toward an ideal world we have to pretend that we are already in one.
The picture is of course in reality even more complex, however, than I have so far allowed. Trans-women typically cannot actually get the surgery they want until they have been living as a woman for years. The most common process is for a trans woman to “come out” as trans and start to live as a woman long before they have surgery, if they even have surgery at all. Many don’t ever have the surgery for various reasons, including because it comes with a great many complications and the results are not always satisfactory. While there are of course different positions the general trans position is that surgery is just one part of a greater process, and, some would say, not necessarily even an essential or the most important part.
Recognising this complexity however creates only additional difficulties for the simplistic case made by some trans-activists. It creates, to be precise, a dilemma for them. Either one says that only post-op trans-sexuals should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, as implied earlier, it appears to be the trans-activist who is being essentialist, by attributing gender identity to anatomy (plus hormones etc), and merely adding that anatomy is malleable. Such a position puts a stark dividing line within the trans-community between pre-op (or non-op) on the one hand and post-op on the other. Or one says that all self-identifying women (i.e. pre-op trans-sexuals too) should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, it really must be asked, do you really not see ANY good argument for women to exclude from women-only spaces people who have male genitalia, etc? Can you really not see how some women might find it problematic to be told that they simply must let such people in on equal terms?
To move towards conclusion: A key problem for both sides in this debate is not having truly taken on board the point that identity is not a simple but a complex; hence they both end up arguing over something which is merely one aspect of the complex and by extension they commit themselves to the very essentialism they all argue they are against.

I think the real culprit here may then be a profound – a hyper- — individualism in our society, a kind of psychical consumerism of identity-politics that makes it seem as though any claim to identity is self-validating and must be accepted, and a wearing of victimhood as a badge such that one’s victimhood is supposed to prevent any criticism of one’s psychologically-based claims to identity. In tandem with this, ironically, lies a deep-set and enduring power of essentialist gender stereotypes and of biologism; a deep-set cultural assumption that one’s body ought to reflect gender stereotypes and ought to take on one of two supposedly-biologically-pre-set formations.

I will never rest until all oppression is ended. But the oppressed (and of course that is virtually all of us, in one way or another) must also seek to step out of the victim-role; to boldly fight for themselves, and to work in coalition to make this world a place where all of us can and will flourish; rather than to seek to vie as to who is more oppressed.

In this context, is it too much to hope, to hope that a little reflective philosophy such as I have essayed here may shed a little light on the matter? That tempers might calm enough to think things through as I have sought to do here? I hope not…

For, unlike Julie Burchill, I have the greatest of sympathy for trans-sexuals, a small minority who remain deeply misunderstood today, and who are probably in very many cases worse oppressed than many (non-trans) women. I hope that our society grows in its acceptance of such complicated sexual identities. I reject transphobia completely and out of hand.

But: I think that Feminists have a right to point out that there can in some cases be a prima facie tension between the desire to become a woman and the full recognition of the still-often-stark oppression of women, much of the time, in much of the world. And, more important (because more pressing): it is just plain wrong for any victim-group to use its victim-status as a tool with which to beat other victims of oppression. Whenever a trans-activist bullies a Feminist (or of course, equally, vice versa), Feminism dies a little – and trans-women need Feminism badly. Because, if they don’t know all there is to know about the oppression of women before they become one, I am reliably informed (by a transsexual acquaintance) that they often get to know a lot more about it afterward…

[Thanks to those who gave me comments on an earlier version of this piece. Please note that, in this piece, I am, obviously, discussing only male-to-female transsexualism. That’s complicated enough, without also addressing the reverse case, let alone hermaphroditism, etc.]

A Wittgensteinian way with paradoxes

My new book, ‘A Wittgensteinian way with paradoxes’, out today, is an attempt to look at why and how philosophers, including oneself – and using the word “philosophers” in the broadest sense possible, to refer to anyone who is doing philosophy, whether or no they know it – get stuck in paradoxes, how they can be helped to get unstuck, and how, once philosophers’ paradoxes are dissolved, the actual power of paradox to help our thinking and acting and our reconciliation to the peculiarities of our life-world, can start to be unleashed. Paradoxes often indicate an a poria in our thinking, a hovering, a nonsensical desire to say things that are uncotenable. But not always. If we get clearer about when they (/we)do, then we can start to get clearer about when they don’t, or needn’t.

Let me sketch briefly here my latest thoughts (since even the book went to press, six months ago) on what the book concerns and hopes to accomplish, by focussing in on a few of the key chapters.

In Chapter 1 of the book, I offer a radically revisionist take on ‘Logicism’, the view, often wrongly ascribed to the early Wittgenstein, that arithmetic can be derived from logic. I seek to defuse Russell’s paradox, by arguing that it doesn’t have to be seen as undermining Frege’s system, provided that one takes that system in a way different from the way that Frege himself inclined to taking it. I use Frege’s own arguments against Kerry to undermine the felt-necessity of that inclination.

Consider in this context the following wonderful passage from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on the foundations of mathematics:

“Is there such a thing…as the right logical calculus, only without the contradictions?
Could it be said, e.g., that while Russell’s Theory of Types avoids the contradiction, still Russell’s calculus is not THE universal logical calculus but perhaps an artificially restricted, mutilated one? Could it be said that the pure, universal logical calculus has yet to be found? //
…The formalization of logic did not work out satisfactorily. But what was the attempt
made for at all? (What was it useful for?) Did not this need, and the idea that it must be capable of satisfaction, arise from a lack of clarity in another place?
The question “what was it useful for?” was a quite essential question. For the calculus was not invented for some practical purpose, but in order ‘to give arithmetic a foundation’. But who says that arithmetic is logic, or what has to be done with logic to make it in some sense into a substructure for arithmetic? If we had e.g. been led to attempt this by aesthetic considerations, who says that it can succeed? (Who says that this English poem can be translated into German to our satisfaction?!) (Even if it is clear that there is in some sense a translation of any English sentence into German.)”

Chapter 2 brings up to date my thoughts on the paradoxes of time-travel, explored here on an earlier occasion:; thanks to those who commented then, for strengthening my thinking on this topic.

Chapter 3 of the book, I take on the philosophical linguistics of Noam Chomsky. After first allowing certain of Chomsky’s insights into Wittgensteinian philosophy, and his appropriate scepticism as to human science – take for instance this lovely quote from him, which I have just discovered today: “As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice arise, human science is at a loss.” – I then criticise Chomsky on the grounds, roughly, that he doesn’t in my view adequately see the sense in which (as argued for instance in my THE NEW WITTGENSTEIN) there cannot be any such thing as having an external point of view on language.

Towards the end of the book, having addressed and defused various ‘philosophers paradoxes’, I look towards possible and actual ways in which paradoxes can be positively beneficial, and in which their continuing need not be conceived of by philosophers as something needing rectifying or eliminating. For example, consider the (itself somewhat paradoxical) category of ‘fictitious history’. This category is crucial to understanding what the latter Wittgenstein is quite often up to. Through offering us fictitious histories, Wittgenstein frees our minds from constriction by unwitting and/or dogmatic assumptions that imprison us. He offers us alternative possibilities (as the later Gordon Baker, in particular, stressed). Now think in this connection of what Nietzsche does in a book like The genealogy of morality (the subject, alongside Wittgenstein, of chapter 10 of my book). What is it that he does (especially in the second essay of the Genealogy) but offer a potentially-fictitious history of punishment and of morality? The point isn’t whether his account is true or not; the point is that something like it might be true; and that punctures our complacency in morality as we have inherited it. This then frees us up for the amazing and beautifully-paradoxical operation that Nietzsche undertakes in the third essay of the Genealogy: destroying ‘ascetic’ morality from within.

The last lines of the book should give you a flavour of my overall purpose in it:

“I hope this book might help play some role in the search for a truer intellectual freedom. An intellectual freedom genuinely at home in our thoroughly social and embodied nature. In our lives that are so empty of what philosophers typically call ‘paradoxes’ – and yet nonetheless, sometimes, so full of paradox.”

If readers of this blog get to read the book, I would love to know what they (you) think of it.


It’s 50 years this year since the publication of one of the biggest-selling philosophy books of all time, and in my opinion one of the major works of philosophy of the last century, Kuhn’s STRUCTURE.
(It’s also btw the 90th anniversary of Kuhn’s birth, this year.)
I went on Radio 3′s NIGHT WAVES to discuss STRUCTURE at 50, recently. Have a listen again here: (16 minutes in).
There are all sorts of books and conferences coming out / happening to celebrate the anniversary.
One of my contributions is this [see link below] much smaller offering: a review of an interesting recent book on Kuhn’s philosophy, which argues (I don’t really agree, as you’ll see) that Kuhn’s post-STRUCTURE writings are much better. The review will be appearing in the BJPS. If you are interested in Kuhn, you might be interested in this. The link here goes to the ‘full-length’ version. The version that will appear in BJPS will be much shorter, and further-edited.
So: suggestions of changes welcome!
Here it is: [NB This link downloads a copy of the file onto your machine.]
This review btw is co-authored by me and Jessica Woolley, a student of mine. So she gets at least half the credit for this. (But not, please, half the blame, if any! ;-)

How ‘sport’ lost its meaning

So, it’s (bread-and-)circuses time ‘at last’: Time to forget about solidarity with the Arab Awakening, to forget about the collapsing Euro, to forget about our day-by-day smashing of biodiversity and destruction of a liveable atmosphere; time also to forget about your own life, to forget about DOING anything, and instead to start sitting on your backside more; it’s time, once you are firmly sat, to project everything (jingoistically, of course) onto a specially-selected bunch of others, flown in with no cost or carbon spared.
It’s time to stop being and start SPECTATING.

Let the pointless ogling begin…

Yep: it’s the 2012 Olympic ‘Games’. . .

Let’s start, briefly, with the ‘greenest games ever’ (sic. – or: Pass the sick-bag, someone…). Can’t we, in this day and age, figure out better ways of spreading joy that don’t spread so much misery among our descendants? That is what they are going to receive from us, mostly: misery, courtesy of climate chaos (of which we have experienced a small taste here in Britain, this ‘summer’). Misery which is being contributed to by all this Olympic construction, travel, and so on.

I can hear one or two of you groaning already. “Why does he have to be such a killjoy?” Well, forgive me if I’m being curmudgeonly. It is probably because my potatoes, that I’ve just got back from seeking to harvest, have blight. (Why do they have blight? Because of this dreadful ‘summer’. (Why this dreadful ‘summer’? Probably because of incipient manmade climate chaos. (Why this manmade climate chaos? Because of excessive GHG / carbon emissions. – Which brings us back to the insane amount of flying, among other things, that our species is currently indulging in…including to make possible spectacles such as the Olympics…)))

Now let’s move onto the concept of sport itself. I have serious reservations about modern spectator ‘sport’. I think it isn’t really…sport any more. It is a kind of madly-over-rewarded professional body-machinisation and semi-prostitution. Goto for more detail…

It is true that at times of ‘great sporting events’, there is often some temporary boost to the numbers of people taking part in those sports. Is that a good instrumental grounds on which to defend all this spectating and getting-on-your-backside? Not really: Because imagine what we could do if, instead of saying to people “Sit still and watch these amazing geniuses [read: boring overpaid professional obsessives] perform!”, we truly encouraged everyone to BE, to participate, to DO… Imagine if as a culture we devoted the same energy and money to getting people active as we currently do to pacifying them… Imagine if we sought to enliven people’s own lives, rather than make them absurdly identify with others who in fact they cannot hope to emulate…

Or, as I think it should now be termed, ‘sport’. When referring to these professional capers, we should always put the scare-quotes in place… (As Confucius would have it: the most important task for a public intellectual is the rectification of names. The name of ‘sport’ has now been thoroughly turned on its head. We need to recover the old meaning (As in ‘What sport we had!’ Or ‘Now that was sporting!’).)

Let me be very clear, so that there is no misunderstanding of what I am saying here: I have nothing against sport (as opposed to: against ‘sport’). What I like is PARTICIPATION; what I don’t like is mere spectatorship. I like cycling – much more than I like WATCHING cycling, for example. I like playing table-tennis once in a while. I think our world would be far happier and healthier if we played sport, rather than watching ‘sport’.

And of course I am not just criticising the Olympics; not at all. On the contrary: the problem is rampant across ‘sport’. The trouble with soccer, nowadays, for instance, is that soccer is infected with the same cancer of professionalism as everyone else, as all major ‘sports’. Soccer teams don’t really represent their local town any more. They [players, and teams] are just bought by the highest capitalist bidder.

It’s time to end ‘sport’ — and bring back sport. Reflecting on what is wrong with these Olympics (see for instance & ) is an ideal time to start to do so…

But don’t just sit there! Don’t even just write comments on what I’ve written… Don’t just exchange a TV screen for a computer screen… (And if you do write comments, then do be a bit…playful…)

Rather, get out there, into the wonderful outdoors, and play.