Author Archives: James Garvey

Memo to the future from Bertrand Russell

Just got sent this and will listen to the whole thing on the commute home —  the link will take you to Youtube.  If I’ve messed up the link, the future bit starts at 26 minutes, 30 seconds.

John Corvino on same sex marriage

You might have heard that Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution in Rhode Island, recently cancelled a talk defending same sex marriage by John Corvino, head of philosophy at Wayne State University.  Here’s a bit from New York Times on the matter (the whole article is here).

Providence College, a Roman Catholic school in Rhode Island, has canceled a lecture in support of same-sex marriage on Thursday by a gay philosophy professor, citing a church document that says that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

The college apparently re-invited him, following loud objections, and Corvino’s reply is here.

The current issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine features a piece by Corvino on same sex marriage, and as his views are muffled elsewhere, it might be good for us to consider them here.  Here’s the article.  Please do say what you think.

What’s wrong with gay marriage?

The gay-marriage movement has lately made dizzying progress. In the UK, which currently allows ‘civil partnerships’, the British and Scottish parliaments are close to recognising same-sex marriage. Last November, voters in three US states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington) extended marriage rights to same-sex couples; this year, legislators in Rhode Island, Delaware, and Minnesota have done the same, while those in Illinois, Nevada, and New Mexico have taken steps in that direction. Uruguay, New Zealand and France now allow same-sex couples to marry. Even staunch opponents of homosexuality concede that the tide is mounting against them – and yet they continue to put up a vigorous fight.

Where are the philosophers amidst this clash? Perhaps surprisingly, they have remained largely silent. Many believe that the right of same-sex couples to marry is so obvious as to be unworthy of serious debate. On the opposing side, a small but prominent group of socially conservative academics contend that the first group is simply blind to objective moral reality. According to their view, same-sex ‘marriage’ isn’t just bad policy: it’s a conceptual confusion, fashionable only because the sexual revolution has so badly distorted the proper understanding of sex and marriage.

This objection is best expressed by self-styled ‘new natural lawyers’ such as John Finnis at Oxford and Notre Dame, Robert P George at Princeton, and others, although one can find shades of their position in common-variety conservative arguments as well. Indeed, their view can be understood as a sophisticated defence of the familiar slogan ‘Marriage = One Man + One Woman’, sometimes rendered in religious garb as ‘It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’.

The argument finds its fullest elaboration in a recent book by Sherif Girgis, Robert P George, and Ryan Anderson – What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense – and the basic idea is as follows. In order to decide whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, one must first ask What is marriage? But (the argument continues) the correct answer to that question shows that marriage is, by its very nature, a male-female union. So whatever it is that same-sex couples are asking for, it isn’t marriage. ‘Same-sex marriage’ is thus an oxymoron, like ‘married bachelor’ or ‘four-sided triangle’ or ‘deconstructionist theory’. Call this the Definitional Objection to same-sex marriage.

Examples of the Definitional Objection abound. Former US Senator Rick Santorum used it on the campaign trail in his 2012 Republican presidential primary bid. Waving a napkin in the air, he announced, ‘Marriage existed before governments existed. This is a napkin. I can call this napkin a paper towel. But it is a napkin. Why? Because it is what it is. Right? You can call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t change the character of what it is.’

In a similar vein, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, argues that ‘Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.’ He went on to compare the push for same-sex ‘marriage’ with the behaviour of dictators.

In a law review article, Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jeffery Ventrella contends that ‘to advocate same-sex “marriage” is logically equivalent to seeking to draw a “square circle”: One may passionately and sincerely persist in pining about square circles, but the fact of the matter is, one will never be able to actually draw one.’

There is something profoundly unsatisfying about the Definitional Objection, although it’s initially hard to put one’s finger on what. One might worry that it involves a kind of verbal trick. After all, same-sex relationships – unlike square circles – surely do exist, and some jurisdictions legally recognise them as marriages. So the dispute seems to be less about whether something exists and more about what to call it.

But this way of putting it actually misses the Definitional Objection’s underlying concern: What we call things – and in particular, how the law treats them – can have a profound effect. If we group items together under the same legal name, people may conclude that there are no important differences between them. Conversely, if we maintain a verbal and legal distinction, people may better notice any underlying ‘natural’ distinctions.

An example will help to illustrate this point. Suppose Kate and William are arguing about whether to serve champagne at their anniversary party: Kate says yes; William says no. Kate relents: ‘Fine, you handle the beverages!’

On the day of the party, Kate is delighted to see waiters passing out crystal flutes filled with bubbly liquid. ‘I thought we weren’t serving champagne,’ she says to William.

‘We’re not,’ he responds: ‘That’s prosecco.’

But Kate doesn’t normally distinguish between champagne – which technically must originate in the Champagne region of France – and other kinds of sparkling wine; to her it’s all just ‘champagne’.

So far, it appears that Kate and William had a mere verbal dispute: they meant different things by the word ‘champagne’, and their initial argument consisted in miscommunication.

But now (at the risk of spoiling their party) let us imagine the argument going further: ‘Silly William,’ Kate says, ‘”champagne”’ is a perfectly fine term for any sparkling wine.’

‘No, no, no!’ William retorts. ‘They’re very different! And if you start calling them all by the same name, people won’t appreciate that difference.’

Proponents of the Definitional Objection have a worry similar to William’s. (You could say that they’re the wine snobs of the marriage debate.) Heterosexual marriage and committed same-sex relationships are fundamentally different, they argue, and using the term ‘marriage’ for both confuses people not only about marriage’s distinctive nature, but also about its value – a moral good which (all sides agree) is far more important than the pleasures of wine.

But what is marriage’s distinctive nature, and why does it exclude same-sex couples? The new natural lawyers answer that marriage is a comprehensive union: a union of both mind and body, exclusive and lifelong. As a comprehensive union, marriage must include bodily union. But the only way human beings achieve bodily union is in procreative-type acts – that is, in coitus: penis-in-vagina sex. Obviously, same-sex couples cannot perform coitus. Therefore, they cannot marry.

The usual response here invokes permanently infertile heterosexual couples: Why are they permitted to marry whereas same-sex couples are not? The new natural lawyers answer that the sterile heterosexual couple’s sex can still be ‘of the procreative type’. But this answer just stretches the meaning of words (ironic, for those offering a Definitional Objection): Sex in which procreation is known to be impossible seems to be precisely not of the ‘procreative type’.

Perhaps there is some looser sense in which coitus – even for permanently infertile couples – is ‘of the procreative type’ in a way that, say, oral or anal sex is not: It shares certain formal features with typical procreative sex. The real question is, what’s so special about that? More specifically, why is a necessary condition for marriage?

Girgis, George, and Anderson’s answer hearkens back to the notion of comprehensive union, which requires bodily union, which requires coitus: ‘In coitus, and there alone, a man and woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction – a function that neither can perform alone.’ In effect, the two become one – indeed, elsewhere George has claimed that the act makes them ‘literally, not metaphorically, one organism.’

Put aside the biological strangeness of the ‘one organism’ claim. Suppose we accept, purely for the sake of argument, that marriage requires bodily union and that only coitus can achieve such union. Then the proper counterexample for the view is not infertile heterosexuals, but rather those who cannot achieve coitus.

Consider a hypothetical couple I’ll call Bob and Jane. Bob and Jane were high school sweethearts. Eventually, Bob proposed marriage, and Jane accepted. But prior to their wedding, tragedy struck: Bob was in a terrible car accident which paralyzed him from the waist down. As a result, he would never be capable of coitus. Bob offered to cancel the engagement, but Jane would have none of it: ‘You are the same person I have always loved,’ she declared. ‘We will make this work.’ So Bob and Jane legally wed, spent many years together, and eventually raised several adopted children. Although coitus was impossible, they engaged in other acts of sexual affection, which enhanced the special intimacy between them. For decades, until parted by death, they enjoyed each other and the happily family they jointly created.

Question: Were Bob and Jane married? They were certainly legally married, and also according to virtually everyone’s common-sense understanding of marriage. But not according to the new natural law view. On that view, Bob and Jane’s inability to engage in coitus prevented the bodily union necessary for the comprehensive union of marriage.

I’ve raised this objection to Girgis, George, and Anderson before, and they have responded – in an endnote buried in the next-to-last page of their book. (See what you miss by not reading endnotes?) There they bite the bullet and concede that the ‘strong’ version of their view entails that Bob and Jane were not really married. They quickly add that good marriage policy would continue recognising such marriages legally, however, since inquiring into their true status would be invasive. (Why it would be more invasive than, say, a blood test – required for marriage in many jurisdictions – they never explain.)

They also gesture at a ‘softer’ version of the view in which Bob and Jane’s relationship could be marital as long as coitus were possible ‘in principle’. It is not clear how this softer version gets off the ground, however. Any random male-female pair could engage in coitus in principle, But marriage does not consist in what people might do if the world were different; it consists in what they actually do. Suppose Bob were kidnapped before the wedding and never returned to Jane. In that case, they would (sadly) never marry, even though they could marry ‘in principle’ and even though their failure to do is fully involuntary.

The upshot is that the new natural law view avoids the infertile-couples objection only to get stuck with something worse: the paraplegic counterexample. By making coitus a necessary condition for marriage, the new natural lawyers must conclude that Bob and Jane’s ‘marriage’ is a counterfeit.

How did we end up in such a spot? Part of the problem is that ‘comprehensive union’ is a rather vague and slippery notion: suitable for greeting-card poetry, perhaps, but not the sort of thing on which to build a marriage theory. It is clear that comprehensive union doesn’t mean that spouses must do everything together: they may have independent friendships, professional collaborations, tennis partners and so on. It is also clear that sex is part of our usual understanding of marriage. But is it strictly necessary? And must it be coital?

Girgis, George and Anderson answer yes to both questions, because ‘your body is an essential part of you, not a vehicle driven by the real “you”, your mind; nor a mere costume you must don … Because of that embodiedness, an union of two people must include bodily union to be comprehensive. If it did not, it would leave out – it would fail to be extended along – a basic part of each person’s being.’

This is the sort of explanation that not only fails to make the case; it actually contradicts the point it’s intending to serve. Insofar as our bodies are an integral part of us, it follows that any union between two people must include bodily union. Disembodied minds do not form friendships, collaborate on professional projects, play tennis, and so forth. It thus remains unclear why ‘comprehensive union’ requires coitus any more than it requires professional collaboration. (This is not to deny that sex is an important feature of marriage – only that it doesn’t fall out of ‘comprehensive union’ in any clear and unproblematic way.)

So what’s the alternative? Proponents of the Definitional Objection, including Girgis, George, and Anderson, often complain that ‘revisionists’ like me offer no clear definition of marriage. They’re right if they mean that I don’t have a simple phrase like ‘comprehensive union’ which purportedly captures the necessary and sufficient conditions for marriage – conditions that all and only marriages will satisfy. But that’s because marriage, as a complex social institution, doesn’t lend itself to that sort of pithy definition. It’s not definable in the same way that, say, ‘bachelor’ or ‘triangle’ is. As Martha Nussbaum puts it, marriage ‘is plural in both content and meaning’ – involving a diverse cluster of goods and defining elements.

The best anyone can offer is a rough and qualified definition. Here’s mine: ‘Marriage is the social institution recognising committed adult unions which are presumptively sexual, exclusive, and lifelong; and which typically involve shared domestic life, mutual care and concern, and the begetting and rearing of children.’ The ‘presumptively’ and ‘typically’ are crucial: there will be exceptions, as well as ‘grey areas’. (Are ‘temporary marriages’ marriages? What about ‘marriages of convenience’?) Notice however, that loose edges are typical in definitions of social institutions. (Does secular humanism count as a religion? Do tribal councils count as governments?)

Bob and Jane exhibit enough of marriage’s defining features to count as married, even without coitus. But once we abandon the idea that coitus is strictly necessary for marriage, we eliminate the new natural lawyers’ bar to recognising same-sex unions as marriages – and thus the most powerful available version of the Definitional Objection.

Having argued that the new natural lawyers give the wrong answer to ‘What is marriage?’ I’d now like to argue that they’re asking the wrong question.

To see why, consider what I like to call the Marriage/Schmarriage Maneuver. Suppose I were wrong about what marriage is. And suppose that, realising my error, I approached the new natural lawyers and said:

‘You know what? You’re right! This thing I’ve been advocating isn’t marriage at all. It’s something else – let’s call it schmarriage. But schmarriage is better than marriage: it’s more inclusive, it helps gay people without harming straight people, etcetera. We’d all be better off if we replaced marriage with schmarriage. Now, it’s unlikely that the word “schmarriage” will catch on – and besides, it’s harder to say than “marriage”. So from now on, let’s have schmarriage – which includes both heterosexual and homosexual unions – but let’s just call it by the homonym “marriage”, as people currently do in Canada, Spain, Uruguay, South Africa and elsewhere. Okay?’

Their answer would surely be ‘Not okay!’ – but why? The reason is that they reject the idea that schmarriage is better than marriage. They maintain that marriage, traditionally understood, has a distinctive value, and they don’t want that value to get lost in a new, more inclusive terminology.

But if that’s the crux of the issue – marriage’s distinctive value – why not focus on that? After all, the marriage debate is primarily a moral debate, not a conceptual or metaphysical one. So instead of asking ‘What is marriage?’, shouldn’t we be asking why it’s morally important to maintain an exclusively heterosexual institution for recognising committed relationships?

Of course, many have asked the latter question, and the answers have been unsatisfying. For example, some argue that an exclusively heterosexual marital institution is important because children do best when raised by their own (biological) mothers and fathers. The problem with this argument – aside from its resting on dubious interpretations of existing data – is that it requires a blatant non-sequitur. Even if one grants that children do best with their own (biological) mother and father, it does not follow that same-sex marriage (or ‘schmarriage’) should be prohibited, because there is no reason to think that prohibiting it will result in more children getting their own (biological) mothers and fathers.

In fact, paradoxically, same-sex marriage may have the result that fewer same-sex couples raise children. Currently, the majority of same-sex couples with children have them not via adoption or artificial insemination, but rather through prior heterosexual relationships. In a world where same-sex relationships were more accepted – where gays and lesbians could aspire to ‘happily ever after’ in marriage just like their heterosexual counterparts – fewer would feel pressure to enter heterosexual relationships for which they are not suited, and thus fewer children would experience the breakup of such marriages. From the standpoint of child welfare, fewer divorces is surely a good thing.

Let me be clear: I fully grant that marriage, institutionally and individually, is important for child welfare. But it is also important for adults, including those who don’t want or can’t have children. Relationships are good for people in myriad ways. They are good not only for those in them, but also for those around them, because happy, stable partners make happy, stable neighbours, co-workers, family members and so on. At the same time, long-term romantic relationships are challenging, and they benefit from public commitment, legal protection, and social support – the very things that marriage provides. All of these reasons apply to gay people as well as heterosexual ones.

If the Definitional Objection appears unsatisfying, that is partly because it seeks to impose a tidy definition where such definitions are inapt. But it is mainly because appealing to definitions is generally unhelpful in this context. The marriage debate occurs precisely because of conflicting intuitions about what marriage is, or can become. Clever rhetoric about square circles gets us no further toward reconciling those intuitions; worse yet, it distracts us from the urgent moral question of how to treat gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and their families.

John Corvino is chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, the author of What’s Wrong with Homosexuality?, and the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage. Read more at


The Final Moments of Karl Brant

Here’s something quite possibly unique, a good bit of sci-fi starring Paul Reubens (yes, Pee Wee Herman), raising questions about personal identity — usual are we mind or body stuff, but done well.  Might be of use to those teaching the subject, and amusing for the rest of us too.


Fred Dretske 1932 – 2013

Fred_DretskeI’m very sorry to say that Fred Dretske has died.

Here’s Brian Leiter with a short obituary.

Another at New APPS.

The Gettier Problem Problem

Fifty years ago, in June 1963, Edmund Gettier published a very short paper in Analysis called “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”. Philosophical folklore has it that, before Gettier published this paper, most people were with Plato in thinking that justified true belief is both necessary and sufficient for knowledge.  If you know something, it has to be true, you have to believe it, and you have to have a justification for your belief.  In the original paper, Gettier gave some slightly complicated examples which appear to show that the conditions are not sufficient, not enough for knowledge:  a person might have a justified true belief in a proposition but still not know it. Since then, a very large number of more straightforward counterexamples to what’s now called the JTB conception of knowledge have been given.

Here’s an easy one (I think owed to Bertrand Russell).  Every day you walk past a church on your way to work and check the time.  You look up and see that it’s exactly 8 am.  You believe it’s exactly 8 am.  In fact, it is exactly 8 am.  You’ve got a justified true belief that it’s exactly 8 am.  But suppose the clock actually stopped twelve hours ago.  Many believe this is an instance of justified true belief, but not knowledge.  The JTB bit is in place, but that’s not enough, not sufficient for knowledge.

Some argue that there are examples that pull against necessity too, and it might be possible to imagine cases of knowledge even where one or another of the JTB components are missing.  Imagine a college student who’s been up all night cramming for a history exam.  She’s wired on caffeine, totally frazzled, and when asked “When was the Battle of Hastings?” she thinks she has no idea. 1066 comes to mind, but she has no confidence in the answer. She writes it down anyway.  Knowledge without belief?

For the last 50 years philosophers have tried to find answers to Gettier — by shoring up the definition of knowledge, finding ways to defuse the problem, even formulating new conceptions of knowledge.  In honour of this anniversary, The Philosophers’ Magazine asked Fred Dretske to tell us what he thinks we should have learned from 50 years of Gettier.  His answer appears in the current issue, and you can read it here: Fred Dretske, “Gettier and Justified True Belef:  Fifty Years On”

James Garvey

How can you call yourselves philosophers?

There’s an interesting, maybe even startling interview with Nigel Warburton in the current issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine.  You probably know Warburton from his many books and the podcast he does with David Edmonds, called Philosophy Bites.  When I spoke to him, he had only recently resigned from his post at the Open University.  The reasons he gives are striking.  Here’s a bit of it:

Warburton says he’s happy to see philosophy now being taught in schools, and he hopes it will one day encourage reasonable and serious discussion of not just religion but also a wide range of other issues. That’s largely where the value of philosophy lies for him. Not necessarily in getting at truths, but asking good questions, teasing out what we really think or ought to think, about subjects which make a difference to people.

He says that this kind of work just isn’t done in academic philosophy as it’s practiced today. Part of the problem has to do with “the cuckoo in the nest, the burgeoning managerial class” which he sees as getting in the way of philosophical thinking and teaching. Other trouble lies with departmental committees hiring people who are just like them, creating clusters of similar people with similar views. Just as with society at large, he says, diversity helps departments flourish, but often departmental members are all nearly carbon copies of one another. So in their work they end up trying to discriminate themselves from each other with more and more hair-splitting but ultimately uninteresting distinctions. He reserves particular venom for the REF, the Research Excellence Framework, a system of expert review which assesses research undertaken in UK higher education, which is then used to allocate future rounds of funding. A lot of it turns on the importance of research having a social, economic or cultural impact. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that philosophical reflection on, say, the nature of being qua being is likely to have. He leans into my recorder to make sure I get every word:

“One of the most disturbing things about academic philosophy today is the way that so many supposed gadflies and rebels in philosophy have just rolled over in the face of the REF – particularly by going along with the idea of measuring and quantifying impact,” he says, making inverted commas with his fingers, “a technical notion which was constructed for completely different disciplines. I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that? To think that funding in higher education in philosophy is going to be determined partly by people’s creative writing about how they have impact with their work. Just by entering into this you’ve compromised yourself as a philosopher. It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did. Locke may have had patrons, but he seemed to write what he thought rather than kowtowing to forces which are pushing on to us a certain vision, a certain view of what philosophical activities should be. Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

Strong stuff.  You can read the whole article here:  ‘Nigel Warburton, Virtual Philosopher’.  Please do let me know what you think.


Nussbaum on philosophy, art, emotion, etc

It’s Martha Nussbaum’s birthday, or anyway it was yesterday, and to celebrate, here’s part of an interview she did with The Philosophers’ Magazine a year or two ago.  She talks about the role of philosophy, the importance of the liberal arts, poetry, emotion, Mill, and, just a little bit, what it means to live a flourishing life.  Nussbaum has more thoughts per minute than most people.  Interesting stuff.

Nussbaum has something to say about the role of argument and philosophy in liberal arts education – an entire chapter of her book Not for Profit is devoted to it. She discusses the importance of Socratic pedagogy, questions, self-scrutiny, understanding rather than memorisation, critique, and debate. I wonder if this actually devalues philosophy in a backhanded way, reduces it to a mere means to good citizenship?

“Philosophy is constitutive of good citizenship. It’s not just a means to it. It becomes part of what you are when you are a good citizen – a thoughtful person. Philosophy has many roles. It can be just fun, a game that you play. It can be a way you try to approach your own death or illness or that of a family member. It has a wide range of functions in human life. Some of them are connected to ethics, and some of them are not. Logic itself is beautiful. I’m just focusing on the place where I think I can win over people, and say ‘Look here, you do care about democracy don’t you? Then you’d better see that philosophy has a place.’”

Philosophy has a place not just in keeping democracy alive. Nussbaum argues that a liberal arts education – and philosophy in particular – is important for a meaningful life. We need philosophy, she says, to criticise and analyse, but also to help us make sense of our inner lives – our feelings and attitudes towards one another. That’s part of what it is to live a flourishing life.

“It’s a fast-moving world. There are all kinds of reasons not to look within. Peer cultures, teen age cultures particularly, are so competitive that they discourage looking in, thinking, ‘What am I feeling now? What are the names for this cascade of emotions that I’m going through?’ When you go out into life all sorts of disturbing things happen. You love people and that doesn’t always go smoothly. You have children and that brings with it a complicated set of emotions and relationships. You have to confront illness and mortality, both your own and that of people you love. In all those situations you need to be able to look within and understand what you’re feeling.

“Mill understood from his own experience of depression that being able to read poetry – to think about emotions in connection with a work of literature – was a tremendous part of the cultivation of the inner world. It makes you capable of love and happiness and stability.

“Philosophy tells you that you had better look within. Philosophy the way I do it is closely linked to literature and the imagination. For example, when you’re dealing with philosophical accounts of emotion, how could you think philosophically about them without having powerful examples of what they’re like?

“I’m with Mill in thinking that education with respect to the emotions has to have an aesthetic component. He’s funny about this. He says in England we don’t understand this because we think life is all about making money. There is also the legacy of Puritanism. We think there’s something evil about experiencing emotion in connection with works of art. The result is that we become narrow-minded and ungenerous. We have a strict moral conscience but little sympathy with others.

“That’s right about a lot of people in a lot of places and times. The rigidity of conscience without the capacity for sympathy and love can do great damage when you’re a parent or a friend or a lover. So it’s important for a meaningful life to read about and think about works of art.”

Grassroots philosophy

London Philosophy ClubThere’s a good piece in the current issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine by Jules Evans about the amazing rise of grassroots philosophy in the UK and elsewhere.  It’s a kind of answer to those who think philosophy is dead.  Philosophy is thriving out there.  Here are a few lines from the piece:

Over the last two years, I’ve researched other grassroots philosophy groups for a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, called “Philosophical Communities”. The picture I’ve built up is surprising, even for people within the scene. There are 850 groups on that describe themselves as “philosophy groups”, in 384 cities and 25 countries, with a combined membership of 125,000. Some of those might stretch your definition of “philosophy”, but it’s still a striking amount. There are 229 ethics meetups, 528 Skeptic meetups, 126 feminist meetups, 60 Socrates Cafes, and 660 meetups dedicated to “intellectual discussion”. And, as I’ve discovered, there are many philosophy groups off the meetup map. There are around 200 Skeptic, atheist and Humanist groups around the United States. There are Cafe Philosophiques across France and Holland. There is the Philosophy in Pubs (PIPs) network, which has 15 groups around Merseyside and a total of 30 around the United Kingdom. There is Philosophy For All, set up by Anja Steinbauer, which has been organising philosophy talks, debates and walks in London since 1998. There are philosophy groups for retired people, run through the University of the Third Age or independently, like the venerable Pinner Philosophy Group in Harrow. There are philosophy cafes and societies on many student campuses. And there are radical ideas groups like Occupy London, who as I speak are recreating the Putney Debates.

And then there are the commercial organisers of ideas events. TED is now almost twenty years old and Intelligence Squared is ten years old, but in the last few years the “ideas event”market has become more crowded. In 2008, Alain de Botton and friends launched the School of Life in London, in imitation of Epicurus’ Garden. It’s since welcomed 50,000 people through its doors, and is launching branches in Australia, Holland, Brazil and beyond. In 2010, Tom Hodgkinson opened the Idler Academy in west London. Both the School of Life and the Idler organise philosophy workshops at festivals like Wilderness and Port Eliot. There are also festivals dedicated to ideas and philosophy, like the Battle of Ideas (launched in 2005), HowTheLightGetsIn (launched in 2008), the Month of Philosophy in Amsterdam, the Modena philosophy festival in Italy, and Recontres de Sophie in France.

Evidently, philosophy is flourishing beyond the walls of academia.

You can read the whole article here.  Probably some people will say this is further proof that academic philosophy has lost its way, that it no longer matters to people out there, people who are finding their own way to think and talk about what really matters to them. But I don’t know.  Grassroots events are  often organised around the work of a professional philosopher, or perhaps a lecturer is there to guide the discussion.  I’d say philosophy outside the ivory tower needs professional philosophers, at least to some extent.  Maybe the enthusiasm and interest of the people behind grassroots philosophy is just what academics need too.


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 the rise of 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.

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“.