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Letters | Issue 151 | Philosophy Now

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Wittgenstein Out-Played • Gender and Pragmatism • He’s Behind You • For Hume The Bell Tolls? • The Possibility of Progress • The Good & The Not • Matter versus Mind • Stranger Ideas • Meta Letters • To P or To Not P?

Wittgenstein Out-Played

Dear Editor: Wittgenstein’s fragment on his snooker match in Sheffield in 1948, as presented by Peter Mullen in Issue 150, was an enlightening insight into his later thought. However, the Crucible was only opened in 1971. What’s more, there is no Cable Street in the Attercliffe district of Sheffield. I suspect, therefore, that the document may be a fake.

Chris Bainbridge, Sheffield

Dear Editor: Analytical philosophers of the twentieth century concentrated not so much on the ideas in the mind but on the language in which the mind’s thinking is expressed. Ludwig Wittgenstein made this practice systematic by emphasising the linguistic character of philosophy’s subject matter. He later came to question the adequacy of formal logic as the instrument of analysis. He preferred to carry out the analysis of language informally, acknowledging the many ways it is used, and the variety and flexibility of the rules that govern it.

Wittgenstein asked the question: Are there limits to human understanding? In practice, he restricted his question to: are there any limits to language itself? He challenged us to try to find necessary and sufficient conditions for our everyday concepts, such as games, for example, snooker. Do all games have a common denominator? His point was that the concept of ‘game’ has no common thread running through it – there’s no necessary and sufficient features of all games that could be turned into a definition of ‘game’.

As a contribution towards such a definition, I hypothesise that games are characterised by four characteristics: First, participation in a game is voluntary; there is no compulsion to play. Second, a game is played for enjoyment (though obviously, stress is not unknown). Third, a game involves a challenge. Finally, games have no life-threatening intent – though some may involve rough and tumble – or maybe snooker cues up the nose!

Doug Clark, Currie, Midlothian

Gender and Pragmatism

Dear Editor: I bought Issue 150 of Philosophy Now, tempted by Kant back-to-back with gender, and an extract from Wittgenstein’s lost work, found down the back of sofa in a tap room (surely a spoof?) I enjoyed Camacho’s plea for us to awaken from dogmatic slumbers on gender (‘Gender as Biological Fact vs Gender as Social Construction’), and take a leaf out of American Pragmatism to consider only ‘the differences that make a difference’. We were urged to commit our metaphysical dogmas to the flames – as there is no fact of the matter which would settle the ‘gender issues’. Instead, we should focus on the ‘most significant ethical issue’ which is “violence, physical and psychological, faced by transgender people”, through taking a public health approach, towards “a technical means of curing the ill.” The ‘ill’ here being the social ill of anti-trans violence.

I did feel towards the end of this otherwise very interesting and useful article, that the author became somewhat dogmatic. Specifically, Camacho articulates a metaphysical stance to gender (where transgenderism is a means for transgender people to ‘actualize themselves’ – see second to last paragraph). The concept of self is metaphysical and, I would argue, requires what Camacho wants us to commit to the flames: “this last dominion over us – that of ideas and abstractions, the specters in our heads.” Even when we are unaware of it, we take metaphysical stances all the time. We can’t do without concepts, but we can try to become aware of their existence, and their plurality in the population. A Pragmatic answer, I think, would be to open this to debate and enquiry, and to come to some sort of agreement on the way forward whilst appreciating that there is no fact of the matter (to settle the debate/conversation).

Taking a Daoist approach (‘Zhuangzi, Language and Gender’) furthers the anti-essentialist argument – and was another great contribution in Issue 151. ‘You can call me whatever you want’ will be a challenge to those on both sides of the gender/transgender divide – but leaves it clear that the ‘differences that make a difference’ can only be solved by open, informed debate and understanding. After all, there is no fact of the matter, just perhaps a few language games …

Sarah Ashelford, Ilkley, West Yorkshire

He’s Behind You

Dear Editor: A footnote to Hilarius Bogbinder’s article on Pylyp Orlyk (PN 150). Orlyk appears as a character in Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa (sic). Does any other philosopher feature in an opera? Unfortunately Orlyk is not presented in a good light in the opera: as well as being Mazepa’s henchman, he is also a torturer and executioner, as well as being responsible for the death of the heroine.

Michael Shaw, Huddersfield

For Hume The Bell Tolls?

Dear Editor: Thomas Morrison in Issue 150 offers us a clear account of the sceptical implications of Hume’s philosophy. However, I cannot help wondering whether Kant’s attempts to dissolve these doubts would have persuaded Hume to alter his position one little bit. Hume observed that rather than seeing causation happen, all we witness are regular successions of events. Kant countered this with the additional insight that there is only one direction to these events. Morrison offers lighting a match as an example. We cannot unlight it by reversing the operation. We also cannot un-bake a cake, nor reverse the ageing process. Examples such as these highlight a distinguishing characteristic of chemical reactions that’s taught to school-children. But alongside this is taught the complementary idea that ‘physical’ reactions are distinguishable from the ‘chemical’ by virtue of the very fact of being reversible. It is always possible to reset the skittles or allow a boiled kettle of water to cool down. Hume was a good Newtonian, and would have seen nothing contradictory in the idea of a universe consisting entirely of reversible successions of physical events.

Hume’s observations cast doubt upon the idea that we can know the world beyond experience. If Kant’s proposed dissolution of that doubt is to divorce that world from time, space, and all causal influence, and embed those within experience, then all he has achieved is to imbue this ‘noumenal’ reality with an element of mysticism.

Colin Stott, Somerset

The Possibility of Progress

Dear Editor: Dan Corjescu (Issue 149) gives a good summary of Francis Fukuyama’s Hegelian theory of the trajectory of human history: that in recent times we seem to be moving towards societies which recognize individual freedom and rights. In his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Fukuyama argued that this march towards liberal democracy was fuelled by a strong ‘struggle for recognition’ – a term from Hegel. The idea originated in the concept of thymos in Greece (notably in Plato’s Republic). In essence, thymos is an intimate human sense of self-worth. If a person believes that her worth is not being recognized, then this will lead to a sense of injustice, anger and revolt.

Whether or not we embrace Fukuyama’s upbeat view of progress, we would ignore to our peril his repeated warnings in the latter part of the book about the downsides of thymos. Thus, while the need for recognition can serve as a basis for many virtues by providing the motivation needed for personal development and achievements, its extreme form, megalothymia – the desire to be recognized as superior – if left unchecked, will lead to violent conflict. There’s also the paradoxical nature of thymos : once the struggle for recognition is over and a certain level of comfort is achieved, what’s left is just boredom and emptiness.This provokes a new search for meaning and recognition in the eyes of others. The cycle is endless. So the causes of Peace are in fact the causes of War.

Quang Duong, Ottawa

Dear Editor: It was comforting and hope-inspiring to read Dan Corjescu’s article in Issue 149 on the causes of peace. I question, however, whether Corjescu’s conclusion – that ideological motives and cultural beliefs contribute to the outbreak of conflict – is very far removed from Fukuyama’s Hegelian view presented at the beginning of the article, that peace stems from “the strong human desire for the recognition of one’s self-worth in the eyes of others.” One might also argue that recognition of self-worth always grows from strong ideological and cultural roots. The notions of honour, masculinity and nationalism are, it seems to me, inextricably connected to notions to self-worth. The author’s advice that we hold back on ‘celebrating the triumph of Hegelian desires’ seems in this light somewhat of an understatement. Perhaps a society where self-worth can be detached from culture and ideology will be one where peace can prevail. But maybe I, too, am a dreamer.

Paul Talbot, Vienna

Dear Editor: After thousands of years of homo sapiens wrestling with moral issues, and philosophers trying to reach some sort of helpful resolution to human conflict, alas, here we are in the twenty-first century, and academics still can’t agree on issues as simple as to what constitutes facts versus theory, much less come up with any usable universal absolutes regarding right and wrong.

Attorney Alan Dershowitz argues that the Holocaust should serve as a moral starting point that everyone would agree is morally wrong (Rights from Wrongs, 2003). But every alt right neo-Nazi worth his salt of course laughs at Dershowitz’s proposal. Putin, who loudly voices his anger against pedophiles in his political rhetoric, has no problems with blowing Ukrainian children to pieces – while telling the Russian nation he had no choice but to attack the Ukraine because it’s being run by Nazis. Meanwhile the democratic world is too frozen in terror to send troops to help save Ukraine’s millions. Welcome to the twenty-first century’s evolving sense of human decency. Seriously, can the human species not come up with any meaningful collective universal moral absolutes? If not, aren’t we all imprisoned in a Twilight Zone version of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, whose punishment was having to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again?

John Williamson

The Good & The Not

Dear Editor: In Jarlath Cox’s article ‘The Goodness of Existence’ (Issue 149) the term ‘non-existent state’ occurs a dozen times. It is taken from David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been, but Cox uses it in his own critique of Benatar’s position. Benatar wants to compare the benefits and deprivations of existing for a named person, with those for the same named person who does not exist. Benatar maintains that non-existence is preferable, in fact is a positive benefit. He has invented the ‘non-existent state’ to argue this thesis – a strange sort of limbo in which benefits or a lack of disadvantage can be ascribed to a non-existent person – called ‘Xavier’ in the article. But if Xavier does not exist nothing can be ascribed to him. There is no Xavier. To ascribe benefits or lack of disadvantage here is incoherent. There is no-one to benefit. There is nothing.

Chambers’ Dictionary defines ‘state’ as ‘a mode of existence; a set of circumstances that exist at any time’. So a ‘non-existent state’ would be ‘a non-existent mode of existence’, which is meaningless. In short, there is no such thing as a ‘non-existent state’. It is a contradiction in terms. And without it Benatar’s position, as presented in Cox’s article, falls apart.

Fr Michael Henesy C.SS.R, Bishop Eton Monastery, Liverpool

Dear Editor: In his article ‘The Goodness of Existence’ in PN 149, Jarlath Cox provides an engaging analysis, effectively refuting the ideas of David Benatar. I want to emphasise more strongly that the ‘Antinatalist’ position espoused by Benatar, when taken to its limits, leads to absurd conclusions. Why limit its focus purely to procreation? If it really is ‘better never to have been’, it must also be better for philosophical perspectives and assertions never to have been (since these are acts of human creation), including those of Benatar. All perspectives, views, arguments and assertions can only risk bringing yet more harm into the world. Or, summarized as a haiku:

Procreation harms
So too, creation by words
Silence harms no-one

Thomas R Morgan, Essex

Matter versus Mind

Dear Editor: I’ve just enjoyed Jonathan Head’s review of Raymond Tallis’s Freedom: An Impossible Reality in Philosophy Now 149, and wanted to share the following reflection. Dr Head’s review indicates that Tallis’s ‘compatibilist’ solution to the problem of Free Will versus Determinism is to weaken Determinism: “Tallis argues that causation is not an intrinsic property of nature.” This is to be contrasted with what Dr Head suggests is the ‘most obvious option’, namely, that the notion of Free Will be weakened: ‘to offer a reduced notion of agency that does not involve a commitment to alternative possibilities’.

We evidently employ two kinds of explanation which can be held to come into radical conflict. It is not clear whether the physical world is deterministic, but we have a tendency to conceive of it in relation to that limit; whereas our thinking about ourselves and our actions has by contrast, a tendency to conceive of them, at the limit, as free. So the problem is not straightforwardly which of these conceptions is true, but what is in the space described by these limits? The two options given voice in the review – to either move away from determinism or move away from free will – are not necessarily the only ones. There is another road: keep both, and see how the rest of what we say moves to accommodate them. For instance, I’m drawn by the kind of thinking expressed in the second Matrix movie:

Neo: But if you already know [my choice], how can I make a choice?

The Oracle: Because you didn’t come here to make the choice; you’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it. I thought you’d have figured that out by now.

Joe Bossano, Salisbury, Wilts

Stranger Ideas

Dear Editor: It’s quite a while since I read Camus’ novel L’Etranger, but I do recognise the ingredients that Finn Janning sketches in Issue 148: the lack of tears at the mother’s funeral, the murder, and the trial. What Janning’s article lacks is the life Albert Camus himself experienced growing up in a rough neighborhood. There he was a stranger. I’ve undergone two class journeys. The first was from a rough block-of-flats to a house in the same rather rugged suburb of Stockholm, but where no social problems were found, where all the dads worked and had pretty new Volvos, and where the kids studied. So then I ended up in university and have lived a couple of decades in an area where kids do not ask what job they will get but what they want to do with their lives. The thing is, as the article progressed and went from working-class-born Camus to references to bourgeoise kid Sartre and even richer girl de Beauvoir, the talk also gets increasingly similar to the talk of my newer neighborhoods: Create yourself, show courage. I hear stuff like that a lot now, but did not hear anything like that growing up. Even the ‘help others, show companionship’. Yeah. If you read Sartre’s Les Mots, you can vividly see that Sartre ought to feel thankful for being born where people around him allowed him to flourish. He allegedly got a reality check in La Rochelle, and spent his grown up life being the bewildered genius not able to make the class journey downwards. I personally think that journey is impossible.

Meursault was not a happy extrovert gaining life in the merry company of others. He seems like a born introvert. He does not care so much about others, he broods a lot, and cannot get energy from others. But had Meursault read Janning’s article, would he have found the courage to marry the pretty girl, refrain from pulling the trigger at the guy on the beach, and lived happily ever after? Maybe – but I doubt it.

Anders Wallin, Uppsala, Sweden

Meta Letters

Dear Editor: I am in my sixties and I am relatively new to the subject of philosophy and to your magazine. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading many interesting and thought-provoking articles over the past year. In particular, I really enjoy the Letters pages, as they often provoke additional thoughts about articles which has led me to re-read them for a second time in search of something I may have missed. I therefore see the Letters as a kind of QA process. Long may the articles and letters continue to support each other by complimenting, criticising and challenging thoughts, ideas, or even theories!

Malcolm Clark, Caithness

Dear Editor: I often turn to the Letters page early on in my perusing, and Issue 150’s was very interesting. I was glad to see Robert Burk and DE Tarkington agree with my views on ‘cancel culture’ – a sort of intellectual timidity. But my favourite letter was the one by Eric Fairchild. I’ve never understood why mind-altering drugs are not allowed to ‘count’ by some thinkers. I’ve taken about two hundred trips (LSD and mushrooms), and wouldn’t rule out a couple more before my life’s end, though now I only enjoy marijuana (without tobacco) – no alcohol, pills or the like… The ‘thinking’ one does when tripping is of a different order to everyday pondering. Wittgenstein said ‘the limits of our language are the limits of our world’, but I’m guessing he never dropped a tab. Even the three bad trips I had during my earlier years led to life-changing and correct decisions, regarding violence, nature, and relationships.

I’m happy to admit thinkers such as Alexander and Ann Shulgin, Antonio Escohotado and Terence McKenna into the panoply of Philosophers – though not Carlos Castaneda, who I’m pleased to say I could see through even before learning that he made most of it up.

C. Taylor, Sabiñanigo, Spanish pre-Pyrenees (“ In the mountains, where you feel free,” as T.S. Eliot put it.)

To P or To Not P?

Dear Editor: Referring to my article in Issue 149 on Russell’s paradox, Peter Spurrier in Issue 150 is no doubt quoting the tautology ‘not (P or not P)’ as being logically equivalent to ‘(P and not P)’, where in this case P stands for ‘being self-membered’. This is fine as long as P is a substantive proposition. If not (and my article demonstrates that both P and not P are not substantive), then the deduction ‘P and not P’ is not a contradiction. Neither the states P nor not P can logically exist; so their conjunction can hardly be considered in anyway contradictory. Two nothings, so to speak, cannot contradict each other.

Paul Tissier, Brighton

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