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Sound the Philosopher-Signal: We need to save A level Philosophy

Zara Bain argues philosophers need to recognize that A level philosophy may soon cease to exist, and mobilize to ensure that this doesn’t happen. This article appears only on the web.

In January this year, the exam board AQA released a new specification for its A Level in Philosophy. Despite having agitated for changes to the specification for years, many teachers threw their arms up in disgust. Staff at AQA have been subject to personal abuse. The board have been called “totalitarian” for removing Political Philosophy and for the absence of prolonged consultation with the community-at-large in the redevelopment of the specification. Articles appeared in the press slamming AQA for the changes, this rare instance of national attention made all the worse since the perspectives offered rested mainly on factual inaccuracies and shoddy argument.

This was despite it being leaked into the public domain that the future of A level Philosophy is under threat. A senior source at AQA suggests that the cost to the board’s reputation has been so substantial that the subject narrowly avoided being scrapped in Autumn 2013. It may not be offered for teaching beyond a single cohort of AS and A2 students unless we can reverse a perception that the subject and the community that delivers it are “toxic”.

That there is a new specification at all results from a last-ditch attempt by a handful of individuals at AQA to stop it being thrown on the pyre. In a matter of weeks the specification was redrafted with input from teachers, professional philosophers, the British Philosophical Association and a world-leading expert in assessment practices. That is why there was no year-long consultation.

Until its approval by OfQual in Spring 2014, it was not clear that A Level Philosophy would be available for teaching in September. OfQual approval means it will go ahead even though the course’s future beyond June 2015 remains uncertain. Not one other board has offered a replacement course should this one be cut. If we and our subject are toxic, what would motivate them to do so?

The old specification: not the gold standard some think

The description of toxicity is, of course, unfair. The history of A level Philosophy is complicated: for a long time teachers and experts expressed grave concerns over the handling of the subject. This cannot be overstated. People are pissed off and they have good historical reasons for this.

Confidence in the course from anyone but AQA’s senior examining team was low. Previous specifications were criticised for philosophical inaccuracy and problematic assessment practises. The exams were not entirely unlike students being dropped into an A level equivalent of a dystopian game-of-survival run by a mysterious authority whose documented positions only sometimes lined up with what it practised.

Predicted grades regularly failed to match actual grades, re-marks were not only common but expected and exam centre after exam centre wrote letter after letter to AQA complaining about just how hard it was to convert student and teacher effort into stable, predictable results. The British Philosophical Association (BPA) commissioned reports evaluating previous incarnations of the course and a teacher-led Campaign to Improve AQA Philosophy flourished on Facebook.

In these days where results matter not only to league tables but to students concerned to maximise their chances of getting into a good university, school and college managers became increasingly unhappy stumping up the resources for this unpredictable, unresponsive and often small-cohort subject. Teachers have been forced to drop the course and switch to A Levels in Religious Studies else risk losing their jobs altogether. This is not the fault of the new specification, but the old one.

The competition with Religious Studies is nothing new, and Philosophy is losing

AQA’s A Level Philosophy sits amongst those small and specialist subjects whose existence depends on revenues generated by higher-entry subjects. Only 6000 students take this course at AS and only 50% of those continue to full A level. Compared with subjects like History, Physics or Economics, the numbers – including conversions from AS to A2 – are low. It makes the board no money: they run it to fulfil a supererogatory notion that it is in the public interest to do so.

This is the only formal pre-university qualification in Philosophy in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. There are no GCSEs in Philosophy and no purely philosophical alternative A level offered by another board.

Notable exceptions are popular modules in Philosophy of Religion & Ethics offered within various Religious Studies A levels. Many students who describe themselves as doing “Philosophy A level” actually study these courses.

Over three times as many students sit exams in Religious Studies across Edexcel, AQA and OCR than AQA’s Philosophy course, with 85% of students taking one or both of these philosophical modules. This has led some to suggest that Religious Studies benefits from this false conflation, given 16-18 year olds hungry for opportunities for critical theoretical reflection absent from many A levels, although keenly aware of grades.

These courses, while perfectly adequate in their context, restrict their focus to two very specific areas of Philosophy, both of which remain tethered to religious studies and its discursive methods, a fact recognised by the BPA.

This has consequences for students entering Philosophy degrees on the back of these courses, frequently heard to opine that questions in philosophical logic and epistemology bear very little resemblance to the what and how of Philosophy with which they are familiar

The popularity of Philosophy of Religion & Ethics modules – as options within both A Level Philosophy and Religious Studies – explains their inclusion on the new specification. In a situation where the restoration of teacher and centre confidence is paramount and playing to teacher strengths is imperative if teachers can deliver it well, this is reasonable. It’s also working: centres offering only Religious Studies A level are already making enquiries about switching to AQA’s new Philosophy course.

If there’s competition between these subjects, it’s nothing new. So far, Philosophy has been losing. This new specification is clearly an attempt to help it stay in the game.

The new specification is a good start, but much work remains to be done

None but the British Philosophical Association have spoken out in support of the new specification. They claim it represents a “step in the right direction” albeit one “constrained… by OfQual and AQA processes.” Given the realities of nationalised pre-university qualifications, this is unsurprising. Indeed, the BPA have praised AQA for their willingness to work with academic philosophers to ensure a credible future for the course.

The BPA are right. To suggest this specification is worse than the previous one is just false, as are the accusations that it creates competition with religious studies that did not already exist, or that it promotes rote learning over philosophical dexterity.

By centralising argument skills and textual engagement as baseline requirements in every single module, this course comes far closer to the rigours of first-year undergraduate-level Philosophy than ever before. Prima facie, this course will be easier to teach: gone is the mind-reading demanded by the previous specification and its mark schemes. So too for the assessment problems that led to so much justified shouting and attrition, although a new senior examining team will be needed to steer the qualification aright.

Of course, the new specification is not impervious to critique. There are legitimate concerns over the way the assessment objectives have been reframed and communicated in the sample examinations and mark schemes. Clarification is needed on the demandingness of textual components. Options have been removed, though this is true for much larger-entry subjects too: it represents a trend in A levels across the board, not a directed attack on the pedagogical preferences of philosophy teachers.

If we want options, we need to look at how to achieve 3-4 times the current number of students taking Philosophy at A level. While we’re at it, we might also seek to interrogate the nagging problem of well-qualified Philosophy graduates unable to qualify as Philosophy teachers unless they qualify to teach Citizenship or Religious Studies. These are questions warranting exploration once we’re sure there will be a course at all.

Philosophers: The A Level needs you

Let’s be clear: there is a counterfactual world in which things didn’t turn out this way. In this world, the grievances expressed by teachers, centres, the BPA, resigning examiners and the Campaign to Improve AQA Philosophy were taken far more seriously, far sooner. That this didn’t happen constitutes a failure on the part of AQA and various individuals therein. For the teacher community, weary from years of battling with AQA, this must be acknowledged.

All the same we don’t live in this counterfactual reality: in the actual world, this is the course we’ve got. AQA are not the enemy, since without them there is no A level at all. We need to stop locating spurious grounds to put the boot in as reward for their efforts to salvage the subject, however angry we are over these historical failings.

We face a situation where the A Level Philosophy may soon no longer exist such that we can continue to lament its supposed flaws and where the general perception of the subject amongst exam boards including but not limited to AQA is one of toxicity bordering on viciousness.

We must therefore heed Kant’s point that a thing must exist for us to ascribe properties to it at all – including grounds for complaint. We must also be mindful that over two thousand years after Plato’s defence of philosophers from the accusation of viciousness, we too need to dismantle the negative perception of our subject by rallying to support it.

We must do so to save the only formal pre-university qualification dedicated to the study of Philosophy in the UK. If we don’t, we risk there being nothing to complain about – let alone teach – twelve months from now.

Zara Bain (@zaranosaur) has taught and examined A level and Undergraduate philosophy for almost a decade and holds degrees in Philosophy from Heythrop College and King’s College London. She tweets about teaching & learning in introductory-level philosophy at @falasafaz and also runs a blog dedicated to highlighting the experiences of disabled postgraduates in academia (; @PhDisabled).

Best of 2009

Revisit some of the best articles of 2009 over the holiday fortnight, hand-picked by the editor. We’ll be back with regular updates from 4 January.

2009 was a vintage year for interviews. The ethicist Peter Singer defended his demanding call for many and more of us to give much more our money to charity. “Most people can give 50% of their income away. I wouldn’t say they can’t, it’s predictable that most of them won’t, but I think in the sense that ‘ought implies can’, they can.”

We also talked to the political philosopher Michael Sandel, who argued that substantive moral views, including religious ones, need to be aired more openly in the civic sphere. To take one example, “I don’t really think we can resolve the same-sex marriage question without coming to grips with questions about what is the moral purpose of marriage, what forms of union are worthy of affirmation and recognition and honour by society, and that takes us into questions of the good life, into what Rawls calls comprehensive moral views.”

French philosopher du jour Alain Badiou outlined his vision of a rejuvenated philosophy, on the back of a major sell-out conference on communism in London. “I think it is a little different today. There is a new generation, there are young philosophers who are interested in a new figure of philosophy: neither purely academic speciality nor purely ideological propaganda for the world as it is. I think it also explains that the interest in philosophy is also a political one.”

We also featured a spirited defence of analytic philosophy – often criticised for being arid, technical and irrelevant – by its foremost practitioner, Timothy Williamson. “A lot of the work that I do is at the logical end of the subject where there’s no more danger of emptiness than there is in mathematics. There are some people who think mathematics is empty, but I think that’s a somewhat ridiculous view. But I think even at the much less formal end of the subject, it’s really neurotic in many cases to worry about whether what people are saying is just completely empty. It’s as meaningful as any other theoretical discourse. Of course, it’s true that it’s easier to stray into bullshit in formal philosophy than it is in natural science, and so I think one does have to be monitoring oneself and others to make sure that one isn’t descending into bullshit. It’s an occupational hazard but it’s hopelessly exaggerated to think that means that it might turn out that philosophy is by its nature always empty.”

Our series of interviews with people from other disciplines and professions who have been influenced by philosophy continued with, among others, the novelist and musician Charlotte Greig and the MP Tony Wright. The interviews with Michael Frayn and Ziauddin Sardar, published in the print edition in 2009, will be posted to the site next year.

We’ve also featured some excellent essays over the last year. Highlights include Chris Bertram on why Rousseau still matters today, Jonathan Webber’s lament over the remake of the film Alfie, Richard Reeves on Mill and autonomy, John Skorupski on freedom of thought and speech, Jo Ellen Jacobs on the other author of On Liberty, John Cottingham on the good life, and Chris French exploding the myths around subliminal perception.

Arguably our most important feature was Brooke Lewis’s report on the low numbers of women in British and American professional philosophy. Other highlights include Ophelia Benson on the growth of the philosophy of humour and an encounter with the director of a “walkie talkie” film about leading contemporary philosophers.

If you’re after something a little shorter, our regular columnists have been on cracking form and I’ve linked from here to my favourite from each in 2009. Ophelia Benson writes on the philosophy blogs in Threads, Jean Kazez discusses the arts in Imagine That, Mathew Iredale covers new developments in science in philosophy in Sci-Phi, Luciano Floridi surfs the web in Word of Mouse, while Wendy Grossman continues the column that has featured since our very first issue, The Skeptic. You might also download one of our podcasts that you may have missed first time round.

Finally, if you haven’t yet seen them, check out our books of the year and quotes of the year features. And if you are looking for a last-minute present or a New Year’s resolution, support the magazine that has made this all possible with a print or digital subscription.

Best wishes for 2010.

Julian Baggini, editor

From Brazil to Bayreuth

Joseph Chandler meets the man who raised Wagner’s ghost

When I was at school, I would have wanted Julian Doyle’s life. He has directed a number of acclaimed pop videos, for acts as diverse as Kate Bush (Cloudbusting) and Iron Maiden (Can I Play with Madness?). He’s also edited Monty Python’s Life of Brian, as well as done the special effects and editing for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Time Bandits. He’s also achieved a moment of celluloid immortality: he’s the policeman who puts his hand over the camera lens at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

His impressive CV, however, would not prepare you for one of his most recent ventures: a play about an imaginary meeting between Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner. Twilight of the Gods appropriates for its title both the translated title of Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung and Nietzsche’s steal of it for one of his last books, Twilight of the Idols. After a successful first run at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005, Doyle revived Twilight in London’s East End this summer, and with a bit of luck, its story isn’t over yet.

When I met Doyle in his London editing suite, he explained that it was not a deep love of philosophy which led him to write the play. “I’d read books like Teach Yourself Philosophy sort of thing, a paragraph here, a paragraph there. I was always politically interested so I read a lot of Marx and Engels and people like that, and I tried to look at Hegel, but it’s a joke.

“But I always found Nietzsche quite fun because he was like a punk philosopher. He would just come out with these great statements. I don’t know anything about the classical way of describing things in the academic way. All I know is that to me he’s a little like Sartre in his existentialist type of approach.”

However, Doyle was also interested in Wagner and a chance discovery of the relationship between the two set off a chain of thoughts that culminated in the play.

“I read somewhere that Nietzsche and Wagner were friends, which really surprised me, and that they fell out, and almost immediately one dies and the other one goes mad. Almost straight away I had the structure before I knew what the play was about, other than that they fell out. I thought, it would be great: you could have Nietzsche in a lunatic asylum and the ghost of Wagner appear to him.”

And that is indeed pretty much it. The play is set in a Turin lunatic asylum in January 1889, a week after Nietzsche’s mental collapse, and only a month after he had finished writing his last work, Nietzsche contra Wagner. After a couple of minutes the ghost appears, and for the rest of the play, the two argue. If you think that doesn’t sound like the most promising dramatic set-up, Doyle would agree.

“I’m always looking for ideas for films, then I started to research into it and I thought the material was fascinating but it was never going to make a film, and I wasn’t even sure it could make a play. To explain why they fell out you had to understand the history of Germany at the time, you had to understand Schopenhauer’s philosophy and how Wagner changed from being an anarchist to following Schopenhauer. You had to explain what these things were and their relationships.”

Nevertheless, the idea had one great strength: Nietzsche, whose “dialogue is already written. It’s great poetic language so you get the guy to play it and say it out loud, you don’t have to change a word. The fun of the play comes from him, all from his statements, his writings, the funnies.”

Indeed. With lines like “Rudeness must not be undervalued – it is the most human form of contradiction” and “The rare power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by the countless who have not got it, and even common sense is not so common,” Nietzsche’s dialogue makes Quentin Tarantino look like an amateur.

Knowing that most of the dialogue is verbatim Nietzsche and Wagner is one of the great fascinations of watching the play. For instance, Nietzsche explains his growing disgust with Wagner, who he thought was becoming self-important and stupidly nationalistic. The tensions in their relationship came to a head when Nietzsche refused to attend the premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth, offended that Wagner had not personally invited him. Nietzsche also attacked the work itself.

“The statements about what happened at Bayreuth,” explains Doyle, quoting: “‘And there they were at Bayreuth, the whole idle royal riff-raff swaggering around and glorifying the Holy German Spirit that your Opera had captured so perfectly;’ ‘The smell of decadence is everywhere, but I could have stomached it had I not had to watch Herr Composer, blissfully allowing himself to be wrapped in this Germanic cloak.’ That’s Nietzsche through and through. ‘Luckily there was Richard Wagner, apparently at his most triumphant, but in truth a decaying and despairing decadent, sunk down, helpless and broken, before the Christian cross,’ that was all Nietzsche.”

Whether or not Nietzsche would have approved of this selective quotation is another matter. One of his most famous quotations is, after all, “The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.”

“Yeah, that’s me,” laughs Doyle. “That’s exactly how I worked. I plundered his stuff for all his best statements. But then he plundered himself. In Ecce Homo he synopsises all his books.”

Although there are big intellectual issues in the play, they also run up against, and sometimes intermingle with, more personal ones. For instance, Nietzsche rails against Wagner’s marriage to Cosima, claiming it went against his long-standing conviction that “marriage makes the woman an object of ownership – a domestic animal, something to be loved down to.” Nietzsche says, “Our debauched, fifty year old anarchist suddenly meets an attractive girl half his age, who happens to be the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt. So not only is she intelligent but she understands music. And against all his principals he marries her and with his royal gold settles into a bourgeois existence.”

One of the most extraordinary pieces of true dialogue in the play is from a series of letters between Wagner and Nietzsche’s physician, Dr Eiser. Remarkably, Wagner wrote to him, saying that “In assessing Nietzsche’s condition I have long been reminded of identical experiences with young men of great ability. Seeing them laid low by similar symptoms, I discovered all too certainly that these were the effects of masturbation.”

Eiser wrote back, “I am bound to accept your assumption because I too am led by many aspects of Nietzsche’s behavior to regard it as all too credible. Given the well known tenacity of the vice, I would be dubious of any method of treatment,” to which Wagner responded, “Your patient spoke to me of gonorrheal infections during his student days and also that he recently had intercourse several times in Italy on medical advice. This demonstrates that our patient lacks the capacity for satisfying his sexual urge in a normal manner; a circumstance which is conceivable in masturbators of his age.”

“That is all true,” says Doyle. “The letters about masturbation are all true. Nietzsche never confronted him about them and I don’t know what Nietzsche felt about them. They did come out and Wagner didn’t leak them. The letters came out probably from the archivist.

“It’s weird to talk about somebody like that to a doctor. Obviously in those days they assumed masturbation made you go blind, although it was the syphilis that made Nietzsche go blind.”

The play is as rich in intellectual disputes as it is soaked in personal conflict. One fascinating detail is that Nietzsche accuses Wagner of descending into a Schopenhauerian despair, subverting the conventional idea that Nietzsche is a pessimist:

“Our poor musicologist had been blown off course and crashed his ship into the rocks of despair. … Then along comes the good ship Schopenhauer. Our marooned musicologist jumps aboard but instead of sailing off into open waters our audacious Captain Schopenhauer cleverly steers his ship with energetic purpose directly at the same rocks crashing it to pieces. Why? Because he has a new way of looking at the world, one that declares that being shipwrecked is the purpose of life, a view that saw politics as trivial, and positively advocating disillusionment…”

“I take Nietzsche in his human self, not as his ideological self, as an optimist,” explains Doyle, “because you wouldn’t keep writing with nobody listening to you, you wouldn’t keep going unless you believed at some stage you’re going to be listened to, you’re going to be heard. He knows he’s not being heard, he’s not being listened to. ‘You think so but I need only talk with the cultured people who come to Basel in the summer to convince myself that I am not alive. I am neither heard nor seen,’ that it his line. But he’ll just do the opposite and jump into some very positive statement about a new way of looking at morals or a new way of attacking Christianity. I think in his basic make-up that requires a certain level of optimism or else you’d just despair or go into drink.”

One theme the play would not be complete without is the question of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Doyle does not question it, but he does try to avoid a simplistic, anachronistic condemnation. Wagner was, after all, a product of his time, which mitigates even if does not excuse. Also, like today, bigotry was often almost a by-product of national insecurity, rather than the straightforward result of race hatred.” I have nothing against the Jew!” says Wagner in the play. “It is just that they descended on us Germans too soon; we were not yet stable enough to absorb them.” Plus ça change.

“So many people were anti-Semitic,” says Doyle. “We don’t know if Beethoven was anti-Semitic because he didn’t write. Wagner wrote all the time. He wrote his own libretto – he was the only parson who did – and he wrote books on philosophy, he wrote non-stop. Whereas other composers, we haven’t a clue what they thought.”

Doyle does, however, seek a kind of redemption for Wagner. At the end of the play, he quotes Jews who speak up for the composer. One, anachronistically, is the twentieth century composer Georg Solti, who wrote, “I am not interested in Wagner’s political and philosophical ideas, or his betrayal of friends. To me anyone who can create such beauty, whether he be half Jewish, anti-Semite, liberal or royalist, is first and foremost a musical genius and will remain so as long as our civilization lasts.”

Doyle’s favourite redemption, however, comes from Abraham Sabor, a money lender. “There’s a true story written by his son, in a book, word for word what he told his son: ‘I have given Wagner a lot of money. He hardly said thank you. I told him I couldn’t help being a Jew, and he called me Shylock. You see my son, the world is full of people who borrow and don’t repay; who steal other men’s wives, daughters and sweethearts, many. But only one of them wrote Tristram and Isolde. I only hope my child you will not listen to me when old age might make me bitter, but will listen instead to the music of Wagner.’ That’s such a lovely sentiment.”

Doyle is still looking for new opportunities to stage the play. “Personally, I’d like to see it done in Israel and Germany. It’s about a German philosopher, it’s about their history. The people who have gone really bananas for it are Germans and Americans.”

It all seems a long way from Monty Python, but as his dedication of the play to them shows, it could not have happened without them: “With the money I earned with them I bought time,” he writes. “And with that time I was able to research and write this play.” Time well earned, and time well spent.

The script of Twilight of the Gods is available from and from all good booksellers.

Quotes of the year

In every issue of tpm, our mediawatch column collects pithy quotes by philosophers and about philosophy from the mass media. Here’s our selection of the best of 2009, with links to the original sources.

Philosophy, you understand, is a very pharmacopoeia of cures that are worse than the corresponding diseases.
Jerry Fodor, Times Literary Supplement, October 16

Any subject that has alpha-male status will breed complacency
Simon Blackburn, Times Higher Education, September 27

Fidelity to law, as such, cannot be a constitutional philosophy because a judge needs a constitutional philosophy to decide what the law is.
Ronald Dworkin, New York Review of Books, September 24

The American public’s real objection to the bonuses – and the bailout – is not that they reward greed but that they reward failure.
Michael Sandel, New Statesman, September 10

In “robust” democracies there should be no need to defend press freedom, because nobody would ever think to challenge it.
Umberto Eco, Sunday Telegraph, September 6

Optimality has been a huge enemy of the practical.
Amartya Sen, Forum: A World of Ideas, BBC World Service, 2 August

Right-wing talk of moral clarity can be empty, but that is not the same as being meaningless: empty concepts remain concepts in search of an application.
Susan Neiman, New Humanist, July/August

Facts are stubborn. Not all problems can be resolved by intelligent compromise; some are not soluble at all. It is part of the literature of fact to recognise this feature of life.
John Gray, New Statesman, 16 July

Conventional wisdom contends that the current recession was caused by the free-market zealotry of recent economic policy and by excessively low interest rates. It is an absurd view, given that interest rates are not determined by market forces.
Jamie Whyte, The Times, 2 July

Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton

Many of us would like to believe that intellect banishes prejudice. Sadly, this is itself a prejudice.
Nigel Warburton, Prospect, July

I feel like a magician who is only producing hats and never rabbits
Slavoj Žižek, Financial Times, 7/8 March

Like so many modern ideologies, the new humanism seeks to define itself through what it is against rather than what it is for.
Roger Scruton, The American Spectator, March 2009

Scruton is an accomplished popular journalist – and when he chooses to stir, he does it with a shovel.
Jonathan Rée, Prospect, March 2009

Philosophy has no equations, predictions, or conclusive confirmations – that is precisely why some of us become philosophers in the first place.
Keith Ward, The Independent, 10 February

We may not be professional revolutionaries anymore, but we do make a profession of fierce argument.
Michael Walzer, Dissent, Spring 2009

Call me old-fashioned, but poetry, philosophy, physics, and investigative journalism cannot be blogged and crowd-sourced.
Joshua Cohen, Boston Review, 9 March

Timothy Williamson

Timothy Williamson

Analytic philosophers have a sound methodological instinct to start with simpler, more ordinary cases and build up gradually to the complicated, sexy ones; for advertising purposes, that’s a drawback.
Timothy Williamson, 3:AM Magazine, 25 April

It is completely wrong that UK law does not enable me to protect myself or my children from the loss of my self by arranging to be killed if the surgery goes wrong.
Soran Reader, Times Higher Education, 8 January

That seems to me a genuinely wicked thing to do – to disregard what somebody had quite explicitly said, that he wants to die – not to be resuscitated in certain circumstances and in certain circumstances to be helped to commit suicide.
Mary Warnock,, 7 January

The problem of pluralism

How broad can a World Congress of Philosophy get before it loses its focus?

Syncretic shrine in Soeul

Syncretic shrine in Soeul

If there’s one thing the World Congress of Philosophy could never be accused of, it’s narrow-mindedness. On the contrary, for critics, its breadth of scope is one of its greatest weaknesses: there are so many varieties of “philosophy” being discussed at the conference that’s it not a bit clear the participants share a common subject at all.

Take, for example, the session at the most recent congress, held in 2008, on Taopsychotherapy. A mostly Korean audience of about thirty-five gathered to hear one paper which was not even on Taopsychotherapy, followed by a ten-minute talk by Professor Rhee Dongshick, the discipline’s now elderly founder.

Rhee’s main points can be summed up very briefly: The aim of Tao and Western psychotherapy is the same, only the latter achieves them at a lower level. Treatment in Taopsychotherapy consists in overcoming the patient’s “nuclear feelings” through the therapist’s empathy and compassion. In order to achieve this, therapists need to resolve their own nuclear feelings and purify their minds. This process is quite similar to some forms of humanistic psychotherapy, in particular Rogerian person-centred therapy, which Rhee views as a simple form of Taopsychotherapy.

Apart from this, the talk suggested that “Western culture” took a wrong turn as a result of Platonic metaphysics, and that its main error was that it was based on theory and logic. These cannot lead to truth and reality, which can be attained instead through meditation.

You would be justified in having a number of burning questions arising from that brief summary, such as: in what way is the aim of Tao and Western psychotherapy the same? What is the aim of Taopsychotherapy, and what does Rhee take the aim of Western psychotherapy to be? And which kind of Western psychotherapy are we talking about? What are nuclear feelings precisely, and what does overcoming them involve? What does a therapy session look like, and what does the therapist actually do? If the main basis of it is empathy, how is Taopsychotherapy in fact different from person-centred therapy? And so on.

Indeed, a few questions were raised from the floor. Unfortunately, Rhee did not appear to be responsive to challenges. When a participant expressed the view that psychotherapy and Taoism were in fact different, the venerable professor simply replied that he was wrong. And when another delegate asked how Taopsychotherapy works in practice, Rhee repeated that it worked through empathic response, and that in order to develop compassion you need to empty your mind. So we weren’t any further forward on anything.

It is not that Taopsychotherapy can be ruled out of court as a potential subject for a philosophy conference. The notion of psychotherapy is unhelpfully fuzzy, and novel conceptions of it could help to introduce a sense of perspective that is often nowhere to be found. But that opportunity was not taken. The main problem was that all the terms remained so vague. Making progress on this front would require rather more precision in defining our terms, and checking whether everyone was talking about the same things. Or is that desire simply a Western, neurotic reaching out for logic and theories?

Sessions like these raise the issue of how pluralistic a world philosophy congress can be without totally losing its focus. These worries cannot be easily dismissed as lazy Eurocentrism. One does not need to hold that western philosophy, or some subset of it, is superior to other kinds in order to worry about whether different strands of philosophy can meaningfully engage in dialogue together. Nor do these worries necessarily entail any arrogance. We can always learn from others, but that does not mean we should not prioritise some encounters over others. No doubt philosophers can learn from engineers, for example, but that does not mean that large, regular international gatherings of philosophers and engineers are a good idea.

FISP president William McBride is in favour of being “as all-encompassing as is feasible, just as long as people are committed to some sort of sense of philosophy, even if they conceive philosophy in very different ways. Nevertheless, there is something common in terms of a conception of what we’re doing. There’s a love of wisdom, and a feeling that you’re not out to find a new chemical element or something. There are lots of things you’re not doing, and as a philosopher you’re not also trying to figure out the best way to screw your competitors in business or something. There’s a certain common commitment to some notion of truth which is different from other disciplines. All people who would be worthy of being considered for membership in a society like FISP have something in common, at least in being different from other disciplines.”

McBride’s answer is vague, perhaps necessarily so. Rather than search for abstract principles, it might be more fruitful to focus on a good test case, and this the conference provided in the form of a round table on “The role of Jainism in evolving a new paradigm of philosophy.” Even people who didn’t go to it often mentioned it as a good example of how you hear things at world congresses you don’t hear elsewhere, for better or for worse.

Perhaps the most off the wall member of the panel was Jeremy Seligson, who is a member of “a group of international dreamers gathered around the idea of dreaming the world toward peace.” After all, “It is difficult to make war against someone with whom we have shared a dream.” He’s also the founder of the Children’s Peace Train, a project inspired by a dream of “a locomotive crossing over America to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. where it was greeted by President Al Gore and members of Congress.” There’s a pretty big clue in the detail of that dream that it may not have been very prescient. Seligson has also collected thousands of “precognitive, Korean dreams” which “will someday (in this life or the next) be sewn together into The Great Korean Dreambook.” It’s philosophy, Jim, but not as we know it.

But the main difference between the Jainism session and philosophy as practised in the west (and largely elsewhere) is that the former had its roots firmly in religion. The session was organised by Jain Vishva Bharati, a Jain Institute founded by “His Holiness Acharya Tulsi, a seer, saint and scholar.” His successor, Acharya Mahaprajna is considered a living saint.

The religious beliefs of the panelists were evident in many ways. Dr Samani Chaitanya Prajna was one of two female ascetics (the rough equivalent of nuns) on the panel, who always covered her mouth with a piece of cloth called a muhapti whenever she spoke. This stops small bugs entering the mouth, and hot breath killing microrganisms. This is the most rigorous application of the Jain principle of the sanctity of all life, as well as serving as a reminder to be careful in what we say to others.

Prajna cited the work of the maverick Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto. Emoto claims that he has shown that the molecular structure of ice changes to be either beautiful or ugly depending on whether we speak or think positive or negative thoughts to it before freezing. He is considered a total quack by other scientists, who of course have never been able to replicate his work, but for Prajna, it’s a good example of the deep interconnectivity of humanity and nature.

If the session had contained nothing but wacky science, new age nonsense and religious doctrines, it would be pretty easy to conclude it should never have been held. But it is all much more complicated than that. There was some philosophy at least struggling to get out too.

The central philosophical idea in Jainism is what is often called perspectivism. As SR Bhatt put it in his paper, published in a substantial booklet handed out to delegates, “The real, according to Jaina view, is multifaceted and multidimensional. It has infinite properties (ananta dharma) and therefore it can be approached in infinite ways. … As there are many aspects of reality there can be multiple approaches to reality. Each one is true in itself but it is only partially true. It is true from a particular perspective.”

It is true that in this session, this perspectivism was asserted rather than argued for, but if there is some philosophical thinking behind the doctrine, then shouldn’t it be allowed to be discussed in a global philosophical gathering?

Some say that the answer should be no, because a line has to be drawn between theology, which assumes certain substantive beliefs about the truth of certain doctrines or scriptures, and philosophy, which of course has to make some assumptions, but has no unchallengeable tenets which are taken on authority or faith. If Jainism is a religion, then even if it articulates some philosophical views, and uses reason to develop them, it is still fundamentally different from philosophy.

This kind of objection was raised within FISP when the Sadra Islamic Philosophy Institute applied to join FISP. “There were people who said, look, this is just a front for Iranian islamisasation, a public profile for Islam looking for a mouthpiece,” recalls Dermot Moran. “This debate took place and in fact the majority voted in favour of admission of the Mulla Sadra society and the Iranians are here for probably the first time in 30 years, participating like everyone else, reading papers. They have been in such isolation. Do you want to just leave them in isolation and ignore them and talk down to them and say you clearly don’t understand enough logic to be able to make your case? Or do you invite them and draw them in? I’m for the latter.”

The problem with the opposing view, he says, is that “It presupposes that there’s this sharp distinction between philosophy and religion but that hasn’t always been the case.” There is also a danger of a double standard. “Let me say that the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have philosophers that would have a religious attitude that they would begin with. I used to get essays from students when I was at Yale when they wouldn’t write God, but G–, I’ve been to American Catholic universities that began everything with a prayer. There is a long tradition of the relationship of faith and reason in western thought and that’s an area for dialogue.”

In other parts of the world, it’s not only that religions and philosophy are more mixed, there is more fluidity between religions too. “India has very ancient and varied philosophical traditions,” Bhatt told me. “We have Vedic, Buddhist and Jain traditions, and all these traditions co-existed and there has been intense mutual exchange of ideas among these traditions.” Pluralism is therefore much more deeply ingrained in the philosophy of the subcontinent.

Bhatt insists that although Jainism has its religious dimension, it is essentially a system of philosophy, which he defines as “systematic reflection upon human experiences. Wherever there is systematic and critical reflection we say it is philosophising.” The desire to exclude religion from this is, he claims, unjustified.

“Religion is applied philosophy. It is a part of our existence we can’t ignore. We do have philosophy of religion, we have comparative religion, we do have, not exactly theology, but the study of the development of religious consciousness, and that is all part of philosophy.”

However, when Jain Vishva Bharati applied to be a FISP member at its general assembly in Seoul, its application was rejected. “There was a feeling it was too religious”, says McBride. However, “There are no hard and fast rules. For example we recently readmitted the North Korean Association of Social Scientists. Of course, they subscribe to the official ideology of North Korea, Juche. A better example which everyone is familiar with is from the communist era. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union there was an official ideology, but there were lots of good philosophers around who found ways of dealing with it.”

The argument is that it is better to decide on a case-by-case basis, and to draw people into the worldwide philosophical community, than it is to try to define in black and white what proper philosophy is and keep the rest out. “I hate this ‘that’s not really philosophy’,” says Moran. “I really find that a conversation blocker. It’s not like playing football where there’s a rule and if you do something you can say ‘that’s not soccer’. It really is a family resemblance concept, philosophy, we have to recognise that now.”

In any case, received opinion on what is kosher and what isn’t changes over time. “For a long time it was the view that Aristotle was real philosophy and Plotinus wasn’t, but that has been challenged now. People have recognised that in Plotinus there are discussions of self-consciousness that are far richer and more sophisticated than anything you find in Aristotle.”

In the Jain session, the tensions within FISP as to how inclusive it should be were starkly dramatised. McBride, the then presidential candidate, was invited to take to the stage and give his blessing, which he happily did. Past president Ioanna Kuçaradi was asked to do the same and reluctantly gave only partial support. “I like the universalist approach to life,” she said, “but I’m also not for confusing ways of life and world views with philosophy.”

The disagreements are likely to continue, with neither side entirely happy with the result, no final resolution in sight, and everyone arguing their side. Put like that, it sounds a bit like any other disagreement in philosophy.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm

Walkie talkies

Julian Baggini takes a celluloid stroll

Slavoj Žižek is down in the dumps

Slavoj Žižek is down in the dumps

As a breed, philosophers are not exactly cinematic. When they are occasionally captured on camera it’s usually as static talking heads. So when film maker Astra Taylor decided she wanted to make a feature-length documentary about how top philosophers make sense of the world, she “desperately needed a way to actually make a piece of cinema as opposed to just, I don’t know, a radio show or something.” The solution involved changing the traditional formula by just one letter: behold, the walking head.

In Examined Life, Taylor takes nine thinkers on walks in a variety of different settings. We see Peter Singer discussing the ethics of poverty and affluence outside the exclusive boutiques of New York’s Fifth Avenue, Kwame Anthony Appiah talking about cosmopolitanism at Toronto airport, and Slavoj Žižek critiquing ecology at a London rubbish dump.

This isn’t just a practical way of making sure the result was a genuine “movie”. There is a “nice history of philosophers thinking on their feet,” as Taylor explained to me over the phone from New York. She’s thinking about “Aristotle and the peripatetic philosophers, or Socrates walking around Athens and raising hell. Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker is one of my favourite books, Nietzsche famously took his walks in the Alps, and there’s Kierkegaard with his melancholy rambling around. And it was also symbolic of this idea to break out of the conventional spaces of academic intellectual discourse. Not just in the sense of taking philosophy to the streets where philosophy isn’t usually found, but revealing the philosophy already in the streets.”

This is Taylor’s second film about philosophy, following up on Žižek!, a portrait of the eccentric Slovenian cultural critic which was a surprise art house and festival hit. Taylor has always been interested in political and ethical thought, right from the age of nine, when she started doing “ideology critique” by interviewing her fellow school kids in order to try to prove that “kids are innate vegetarians”, brainwashed by their family and society into eating meat. It seems a natural part of a hippy upbringing, in which she and her siblings were allowed to decide themselves whether to go to school. She took the option not to, until high school. “There was a maxim in the family that was: question authority”.

When she left school, Taylor initially continued to pursue these intellectual interests. “By the time I was 19 I went off to the New School, which was attractive to me because of its whole history of having a relationship with the Frankfurt School, critical theory and all this. I had immersed myself at that point in Deleuze and Guattari and A Thousand Plateaus, and I got obsessed with that, and then when I went to the New School my horizons broadened a bit. But there was a moment around 2000 when I just thought I was going off the deep end in an academic sense and I knew it wasn’t my nature to specialise. It didn’t feel right and there was this side of me which was much more interested in what was happening in the world politically.”

Despite having no experience in filmmaking, she managed to “finagle this gig going to make a documentary about infant malnutrition in southern Senegal.” The result was “this very literal-minded social justice film: there are people starving, make a film about it.”

Having caught the film-making bug, Taylor went on to combine it with her other philosophical interests with Žižek! “I always thought of the Žižek film as sort of getting away with something. It took me exactly two years from conceiving of it and its premiering, and I thought, well this is my film school.”

There is a link of message as well as medium between the Senegal film and the philosophical ones that followed. The thinkers that interest Taylor are those who deal with the ethical and political issues which connect with the social justice issues that move her.

“You’ve actually touched on my fundamental conflict that I’m always revisiting in such a tired way,” she says when I suggest this. “What is socially-conscious enough, or activist enough, and what is too arty, too self-indulgent and I sort of include philosophy on that spectrum, secretly. There’s a part of me that thinks I should be more on the front line, doing something of use.”

The diverse thinkers in Examined Life all share this concern for the ethical and the political. But originally, the idea for the film didn’t have this clear focus. “The first walk I actually filmed was with Colin McGinn (which will be a DVD extra) and was more about phenomenology and philosophy of mind. That walk turned out quite well: it was on the beach, and because of the subject matter there was lot more opportunity to play with visuals, look at light bouncing off water, and perception is a visually rich subject to address. Yet my heart wasn’t in it. Ethical conversations are what brought me into this stuff, from childhood, and I knew for me to be able to really commit to doing this project and do it well that had to be the fundamental theme: what are our responsibilities to others? This whole theme of basic interdependence is fundamental.”

The selection of thinkers was a combination of accident and design. Taylor had already met a few of them while working as an intern at the publisher Verso. The questions Taylor asked of potential interviewees were “did they say something that I had to mull over that lingered with me? Did they change my perception of an issue?” It was also important that “they all had to be already committed to the process of taking philosophy to a wider public. It’s not like I’m finding these left-field thinkers who are in their little offices and taking them out for some sunshine.”

What she is doing is presenting people as flesh and blood who are usually encountered solely through their words. Yet Taylor is not sure whether “this whole aspect of embodiment really matters. Does it bring anything to the table? I’m working through this question with these films. I haven’t really decided. Is philosophy a body of knowledge or does it require a body?”

There are certainly times in the film where the physical action does seem to be saying something. Martha Nussbaum, for example, walks so quickly while she talks, you wonder how the camera keeps up with her.

“She’s marching, she’s on an ethical mission, and she’s an unstoppable force,” says Taylor. “When you start reading the body language it’s interesting how it relates to the thought.”

Although Taylor was interested in bringing together “different thinkers looking at similar issues but from different angles”, she was keen that the result would not lead to “a sense of total moral confusion. Sometimes there’s this sense that if we don’t embrace a particular philosophy you’re going to be lost in this quagmire of conflicting viewpoints and moral relativism. I wanted to reveal what I’ve been calling an ethic of intellectual inquiry and political commitment, even if there’s not necessarily a consensus between all the philosophers in the film.”

The idea of filming philosophers on the streets might sound like a too-desperate plea for their relevance. In fact, the result is far more ambiguous. Quite often, there is a disconnect between the walking heads and the world around them that makes their thinking appear quite detached. So you have Peter Singer looking at the luxury shoppers as though he is a baffled anthropologist from Mars. You see Avital Ronell walking around the park talking about transcendental signifiers, with the camera going past people on benches, headphones plugged in, oblivious to this academic world of ideas. And you see Cornel West in the back of a car, talking about the people walking around with nothing going on in their heads.

“I had to include that moment with Cornel West,” says Taylor. “It was quite funny when he appeared with the film in New York, one of the first things he did was recall that scene and cringe and apologise for it. There are moments when they’re really connecting to the environment and then moments when you just realise they’ve got this whole world in their heads and it doesn’t matter what’s going on beyond them.

“Is philosophy connected, is it disconnected? That’s a question I’m still unresolved about. Should we be asking for relevance or for connection from philosophy? I’m not sure that’s a just demand. The fact that I’m still undecided on certain questions is what’s motivating me.”

It might also be what motivates people to go and see the film.

The DVD of Examined Life is already issued in the USA. The film will be screened at the ICA in London 20-30 November and released in the UK on DVD in February. The companion book, containing full interview transcripts, is published by New Press.


Anthony Cox on how fear of chimeras in interfering with a rational assessment of DNA research. (NB: This article was first published in Spring 2007.)

chimera200When H G Wells wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau, the British scientific community was embroiled in a debate about vivisection. His novel played on those contemporary concerns, with Moreau’s animal victims transmogrified into humanlike monsters. When film producers revisited the story in 1996, Marlon Brando’s Dr Moreau had moved with the times, tampering with his animals’ DNA in order to create his creatures. In the past few weeks, a controversy about so-called “Frankenbunnies” has sparked a new debate about the relatively uncharted ethics surrounding genetic science.

The revolution in genetic science came to wider public attention after the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996, but has yet to deliver tangible benefits to the public. However, some researchers believe that the key to understanding the pathology of degenerative diseases, and eventually finding potential cures, lies with embryonic stem cell research. It is suggested that the research may help future sufferers of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cystic fibrosis, motor neurone disease and Huntington’s disease.

It is the nature of this research that has sparked a public debate about ethics in genetic research. Human embryos are in short supply, and there are obvious ethical concerns about experimenting on fertilised human embryos. For this reason, scientists have focused on ways to create stocks of similar embryos using non-embryonic human genetic material in animal embryo structures. Animal embryos are readily available as a by-product of the food industry.

In brief, the animal embryo (rabbit or cow) is cleared of its resident genetic material, and human genetic material is inserted. The resultant embryo is 99.9% human, with a residual amount of genetic material remaining in the cell structure making up the remainder. The resultant egg is stimulated to create stem cells for research. After the stem cells are extracted, and before it reaches 14 days of age, the embryo is destroyed. These embryos are called human-to-animal hybrids, or cybrids – a term considered more accurate by scientists in the field, since it avoids the suggestion that a true hybrid organism is being created: only 0.1% of the embryo would be animal, only a few cells would be created, and there is no intent to produce a viable foetus which would become a hybrid “animal”.

Despite the UK government’s generally positive views on stem cell research, in stark contrast to the debate in the United States, they initially blanched at the idea of human-to-animal hybrids. In the process of updating the sixteen-year-old Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, the government produced a White Paper in December 2006, which appeared to propose outlawing research using “hybrid embryos”.

This aversion sprang from what the government termed “considerable public unease with the possible creation of embryos combining human and animal material”. The considerable public unease appeared to consist of a number of responses to a Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) consultation, which had only briefly considered the ethical issues concerning cybrids. Critics of the White paper, such as the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, argued that the consultation gave a misleading impression of the strength of opposition and was more reflective of a well-organised lobby against such research, rather than widespread public opposition. In addition, those involved in this form of embryonic research submitted a joint statement to the consultation process, thus diminishing their impact to one voice amongst seemingly many.

Neither were signals from government sources re-assuring for the scientists involved, with a Department of Health spokesman stating that “previous research in this area shows ongoing and widespread support for a ban on creating human-animal hybrids and chimeras for research purposes” However, despite such initial statements, under questioning Prime minister Tony Blair noted that “If there’s research that’s going to help people then we want to see it go forward.”

By the time the HFEA was due to deliver its widely expected rejection to two applications for research involving cybrids, the mood had changed. HFEA noted that cybrids would potentially fall within their remit to regulate and licence and that such research was not prohibited by current legislation, and argued for a full and proper debate on the issue of cybrids.

So what are some of the key issues? One issue is the “Yuck” factor: an almost instinctive hostility to the mixing of species. One of the opponents of cybrids research, Josephine Quintavalle from CORE ethics, has suggested this has made the anti-cybrid argument easier to make: “There’s the Yuck factor. There is an innate repugnance that we would mix the species in this way.” Even the UK scientific community, perhaps pragmatically, accepts the strength of this feeling, since they have a self-imposed ban on the injection of human stem cells into developing embryos of another species.

One explanation put forward for the Yuck factor by ethicists is that the creation of interspecies creatures evokes the same feelings as bestiality, widely considered immoral, and some may see the erotic mixing of species to be directly analogous to biotechnological mixing. Another, perhaps more plausible, explanation however lies in the concepts of boundaries that humans create to order their world, and the taboos that operate to avoid mixing items from distinct categories. By being neither human nor animal, cybrids threaten such social and moral concepts and boundaries – which are what set mankind apart from other creatures. They become an abomination and threaten our human identity. Andrew Ferguson from the Christian fellowship puts it thus: “We are creating a being that is not completely human. We should not alter the whole future of what it means to be human. We should not blur the distinction that’s been there in nature since the dawn of time”

What is the nature of the cybrids produced? If they are 99.9% human, and 0.1% animal, then are they part animal and part-human, or do we have to place them within one category? This is important, since some argue that the human-to-animal hybrids that are created have rights in themselves – rights we would generally apply only to those in the human camp. Andrew Ferguson argues that 99%-human embryos should be considered human, and therefore that the ending of such a life to obtain stem cells is unethical. In the case of a debate about the nature of the embryo, he claims “we should give him or her the benefit of the doubt”. Paradoxically, the stress that pro-cybrid researchers put on minimizing the animal genetic content of the embryo, presumably in order to reduce the Yuck factor, actually strengthens this argument. Dr Calum MacKellar of the Scottish Council on Scottish Bioethics has also stated that a animal-human embryo is “not just a pile of cells, but [has] a special moral status as a human person.”

The counter-argument to this is that the raising of cybrid embryos into human persons with rights is emotive and that the cybrids are purely created with the intent of harvesting stem cells. They are not intended to be viable embryos for the creation of an organism, nor have they been created from viable human embryos.

Concern about crossing interspecies boundaries in other ways is less problematic. Previous animal hybrid work has produced such cross-species creatures as the geep (a cross between a sheep and a goat), and the public have been largely unconcerned by the sight of a mouse with a human ear grown on its back, or for that matter medical xenotranplantation, The use of replacement pig heart valves in those with heart valve defects is now routine, and not generally opposed by those who are concerned about cybrid research. However, none of these examples threaten our understanding of human identity, or raise issues of new moral obligations.

Another ethical issue is the value of such research to human health. In the debate following the potential HFEA ban, both the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust have backed the validity of cybrid research, suggesting it offers the possibility of significant improvements in the treatment of disease. A group of more than 40 leading UK doctors, scientists, ethicists, and politicians wrote to The Times on the 10th of January 2007 arguing that there were “clear potential benefits to human health” from this line of research. Opponents are less sure that such benefits will accrue.

Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King’s College London, is optimistic that the consultation would give scientists the opportunity to explain the underlying science and why the development of animal-human hybrids for stem cell research regulated by the authority is essential. Researchers are also not opposed to greater regulation in this field, as it is currently a regulatory void; they welcome an informed debate.

Despite the Frankenbunny headlines, the debate appears to have moved in favour of those who think such research is warranted. David King, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, argued that such research should be allowed under tight control; when put under pressure at the Parliamentary Science Committee, Caroline Flint, Minister of State for Public Health, suggested that her department’s position had been misrepresented. Acknowledging the changing climate she stated, “What is emerging now—which I think is positive—is possibly far more science engagement on this issue and more ideas and evidence coming forward as to developments than was provided at the time of the consultation.”

Antony Cox is a pharmacovigilance pharmacist who works at the West Midlands Centre for Adverse Drug Reactions, and also as a tutor at Aston University’s School of Pharmacy. He blogs at Black Triangle

The philosopher’s Dublin

Gerald Flynn guides us on an alternative tour of Ireland’s capital city

Trinity College, Dublin

Trinity College, Dublin

While common or garden tourists may flock to music bars and ‘instant Irish Pubs’ in the Temple Bar district, any philosophical tour of Dublin must start within the walls of Trinity College in the heart of the city.

Start in the Front Square of the university off College Green. Near the elegant square of 17th and 18th century buildings is the Library Building, which attracts thousands of visitors keen to pay to see the 9th century Book of Kells illuminated manuscript and the impressive Long Room of the Old Library.

The ‘College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity’, to give its full, original title, was founded on the dissolved Augustinian Priory of All Hallows in 1592. It was granted its charter by Elizabeth I, initially catering for 200 students, and remains the only constituent college of the University of Dublin, though none of the original 16th century buildings remain.

Those who like idealism, of the immaterialist variety, may search out the ghost of George Berkeley. The famous bishop has puzzled many an undergraduate with his thesis that ‘things’ only exist as mental images and perceptions. Esse is percipi!

Berkeley came to Trinity as a bright teenager with abilities in mathematics and a good memory for perceptions and experiences. In his early 20s he developed his theories of vision and made a name for himself by finding some holes in John Locke’s “ideas of a triangle” in the Englishman’s recently publish work on human understanding.

As you look at the large trees on the well-manicured lawns you might recall the limerick teasing Berkeley’s ideas:

There was a young man who said ,‘God,
I find it exceedingly odd
That this tree I see
Should continue to be
When there is no one about in the Quad.’

Of course we all know that when Berkeley went for a nap, god was continuing to perceive the tree and keeping it in some form of existence. The current trees near the college’s famous campanile are not old enough for the good bishop to have seen them but, no doubt, god is still doing his or her best to keep them going.

This is the ground where Berkeley’s duo of Philonous (Berkeley) and Hylas (Locke) conducted the three dialogues “taking a turn in the garden” which he published in 1713, six years after he was elected a fellow of the college.

Now we turn our backs on academe and return to College Green, heading through the large wooden front doors and passing two statues as we leave Trinity: on our left is Oliver Goldsmith and on the right (appropriately) is Edmund Burke – both Trinity graduates.

Goldsmith, while now mainly known for his poems and plays, wrote the first memoir of Berkeley; he also crossed swords with Burke, who produced one of the earliest philosophical works on aesthetics in 1756 with his Philosophical Enquiry into the Beautiful and the Sublime.

To your right are the imposing, rotund exterior and colonnade pillars of the former Irish House of Parliament, built in 1733, and the seat of the Irish houses of commons and of lords until the 1800 Act of Union. It is now a commercial bank but you can usually go in to see the best rooms. The previous house of parliament had met in Chichester House, on this same site, from 1661.

During the reign of William III and Mary, the Irish parliament took a dim view of the real bold-boy of Irish philosophy, John Toland. A bright young Donegal student, Toland is sometimes labelled the founder of ‘pantheism’ as he apparently coined the term. The members of parliament (confined to adherents of the official Church of Ireland) and their religious allies were scandalised when he published his Christianity not Mysterious, developing Spinoza’s thoughts to a more atheistic plane.

In 1697 the Parliament ordered the public hangman to burn his book and the idea seemed to be to hang Toland as well, if they could find him. But to quote the 1960s Dublin writer and pub philosopher, Brendan Behan: “If they’re going to sentence me in absentia they can bloody well execute me in absentia as well!”

Head along Dame Street, surrounded by tourists, towards Dublin Castle and Christchurch Cathedral. While visiting the cathedral and historical display of the city, the philosophical visitor may prefer a smaller, nearby Church of Ireland church called St Audeon’s. (This being Ireland, where 17th century religious rivalries are of recent memory, it should not be confused with the larger Roman Catholic St Audeon’s beside it.)

It is the only surviving medieval church in the city, and still used for weekly services. Entry is free and includes a good exhibition of its history. In the small churchyard there is a plaque to William Molyneux and his wife, who were buried there. The somewhat weathered white tablet on the north wall commemorates Molyneux, noting that he was a scientist “whom Locke was proud to call his friend”. Interested in optics, he was the originator of the eponymous ‘Molyneux problem’.

Briefly, this questions whether a person blind from birth, who could distinguish a cube from a sphere by touch, and then had her sight restored would be able to immediately distinguish both objects by sight alone. Molyneux, Locke (Human Understanding 2,9,8) and Berkeley (New Theory of Vision, 1709) all thought that she could. 20th century medical experiences suggest they were wrong.

On James’s Street we find the famous Guinness Brewery and its Storehouse visitor attraction. This combines a museum of the development of the heavy black beer popular with serious drinkers, a quality souvenir shop, and a rooftop bar with panoramic views of the city.

The entry price includes a token for a free pint of ‘the black stuff’. As you idle away some time over the pint it may be appropriate to take out a paperback edition of one of Ireland’s oddest authors – Flann O’Brien , alias Myles na gCopaleen, (real name Brian O’Nolan) – who brings metaphysics to a new comic level. A garrulous, quarrelsome ‘martyr to the drink’, he became a posthumous literary success since his death in 1966.

Or else you could (given it is not raining) enjoy a view of the city so accurately described from 16th June 1904 by James Joyce as Leopold Bloom made his Homeric peregrination of its faded grandeur in Ulysses. Joyce was well familiar with the writings of Aristotle and Aquinas to which he had been introduced by his Jesuit teachers and he was still reading Aristotle when he left his native city on his first trip to Paris.

As the tourists head back to the city-centre we divert to our left up James’s Street and cross the new tram lines heading for St Patrick’s Hospital. This was founded in 1745 as a humanitarian lunatic asylum from a bequest by Jonathan Swift, dean of the nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral, and it continues to operate as a psychiatric hospital today.

Swift, best known for his Gulliver’s Travels, also wrote about political economy and philosophical issues. He had been a member of the board of governors of the infamous Bethlem (Bedlam) psychiatric asylum in London and wanted to establish a better hospital in Dublin “for the reception of aged lunaticks and other diseased persons”.

In February 1938 one of the hospital’s more memorable visitors was the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He came, not as a patient, but as a curious onlooker who, at that time, was considering taking up medicine and was interested in psychiatric disorders. His former pupil and good friend from Cambridge, the genial Maurice Drury, had earlier returned to Dublin and was completing his medical studies, having been urged by Wittgenstein to become a medical doctor rather than a clergyman.

There is a good case that Wittgenstein might have been better suited as a patient rather than a psychiatrist in the hospital. In early 1948 Wittgenstein returned to Ireland and spent the summer months at Drury’s holiday cottage in Connemara on the west coast. The local farmers thought that he was as mad as a hatter and even stopped him walking on their land because they thought he would frighten their sheep.

Continue downhill along Steevens’ Lane towards the imposing Heuston rail station and cross the river Liffey at King’s Bridge before taking a right turn to face the Ashling Hotel. This was where Wittgenstein stayed through the winter of 1948/9 when it was called Ross’s Hotel, and a plaque near the entrance records his sojourn.

It was here that he completed parts of what later became his Philosophical Investigations; his pupil and admirer, Elizabeth Anscombe visited him there to discuss his thoughts on revising his notes. He often visited the nearby Zoological Gardens in the expansive Phoenix Park which, if the weather holds, is well worth a stroll.

Otherwise take the Luas tram from the nearby National Museum back into the city centre at O’Connell Street. The number 13 or 19 bus will take you three kilometres north to Glasnevin and the Botanical Gardens where admission is free. The restored large Palm House is a great example of Victorian iron and glass engineering. It was here that Wittgenstein, in failing health, used to come for the warmth and tranquillity. Another plaque noting this is on one of the steps where he often sat and read.

After walking the Botanical Gardens with its many squirrels, it is time to return to the city centre and become a typical, non-philosophical tourist sipping pints and seeking reasonable prices in what are relatively expensive restaurants.

Should a cat cross your path on your journey beware that it may actually be a descendent of one of Erwin Schrodinger’s pets. The Austrian physicist, who developed the famous ‘cat in a box’ thought experiment, lived in Dublin from 1940 where he helped establish the city’s Institute of Advanced Studies. He was head of its theoretical physics research school for 17 years during which he became an Irish citizen.

Gerald Flynn is a Dublin journalist who is reading Mental and Moral Science at Trinity College.

Hay on why

Julian Baggini visits a feet and mind tapping new festival

hay200I’m sitting on a stage, chairing a debate about “new ways of thinking”, when I catch sight of the composer Michael Nyman in the audience, reclining on some of the large cushions which line the walls. He doesn’t see me looking at him, however, because he’s holding up a compact digital camera and is filming a woman asleep on the balcony. He continues to do this, grinning, throughout the whole session.

Welcome to How The Light Gets In, the newest and probably hippest addition to the British philosophy calendar. It’s a festival of philosophy and music, held in Hay-on-Wye – a town on the Welsh-English border, famous for its bookshops – at the same time as the international book festival, in May. Its inaugural year featured talks and debates with an impressive and eclectic range of speakers, including Simon Blackburn, Steve Fuller, Will Hutton, Kenan Malik and Susan Neiman. The philosophy programme ran under the loose theme of “Crunch: Values and Belief in a New Era”, while individual sessions took on big topics such as “The Life and Death of the Enlightenment”, “The Failure of Reason” and “Dreams of Utopia”. How The Light Gets In was intellectually as well as logistically ambitious.

The festival is run by The Institute of Art and Ideas, set up last year by Hilary Lawson, a broadcaster, vice chair of the Forum for European Philosophy and the author of two books of philosophy. The IAI boasts its own venue – The Globe at Hay – a converted 250 year old Methodist chapel with a bar and café in the crypt.

“I’ve always wanted somehow to get philosophy out of the academy and into people’s lives,” Lawson told me in The Globe. “I think that what happens is that you get a new paradigm which comes in, which is exciting at the time and opens up a way of thinking, and then a school develops as a defence of the paradigm. The academy almost necessarily tends to defend the paradigm, and I think that it’s important to keep looking to the edge.”

Lawson is critical of the academy, but far from dismissive of it. “Philosophers, in the sense of people who call themselves academic philosophers, have tended to generate a language which cuts them off from everyone else, and gives them some authority, and I think this is a mistake. Everyone is in some sense a philosopher. We’re all trying to work out what our lives are like, and poets and politicians have philosophical things to say. It’s not just confined to people who have been trained in logic, although of course, being an ardent advocate of rationality, I’m going to encourage people to test their ideas and force them to think them through.

“I hope that academic philosophy has got a really important part to play in this. Philosophers need to be out there and obviously in this festival we have tried to include a range, so we’ve included people from the philosophical academic world, but also people from political theory and sociology who have got something to say from an overall philosophical point of view.”

The trouble with challenging the paradigm by looking to the edge, however, is that the edge tends to develop its own paradigm, with critics of the status quo developing their own counter-orthodoxy. This is perhaps what Phillip Blond, the “red Tory” thinker, had in mind when he pointed out that a lot of what he heard at the festival was “easy, sub-Derridian, social and cultural relativism, passing itself off as a critique of totalitarianism, when in fact that social and cultural relativism is exactly what allowed totalitarianism to gain and hold power. … I think I’d probably like to have more debate, make it more serious, certainly more historical, and also focus around alternatives to the present order, rather than engaging in fake debates around some putative totalitarianism which actually no one in this country has ever lived in. All they’ve ever had is extreme freedom and now they want more, which seems to me to get the world wrong, to get modern British society wrong.”

Blond’s reservations, however, are far outweighed by his praise. “I think it’s a self-evidently good thing. I think what Hilary’s done is a little bit visionary and much needed and it’s integrating philosophy into the middle class mainstream and hopefully it can move beyond that into all parts of our life. I think that British culture has lost its reflective and critical edge that we certainly had before the war and we need to recover it. A lot of university lecturers and school teachers are talking about how critical reflection – which really is only the idea that things could be otherwise – has been driven out of the curriculum, and that often students come to universities with four As but can’t write a critical essay. So I think this is to be much welcomed and I’d like to see it in some sense scaled up. This is the first festival and I think it’s an extraordinary success. Most lectures have been sold out, and this is an indication I think of a wide desire and hunger for serious debate.”

Lawson thinks people are more than hungry, they’re “ravenous for some philosophical input into their lives. I think that in terms of people’s everyday lives, they are very lost. They’re lost by precisely the kind of conversation we were having here, in terms of perspectivism and relativism and so forth, and they’re just not sure how to proceed, in the same way that the thinkers involved here are grappling with how we proceed. And what has been most interesting here has been that, when we were putting the talks together, we included a number with quite a topical quality, things about the economy, like banks, bonuses and inequality, and so forth. But the events which have been most well attended – and we’ve had a number which were pretty much full – appear to be the most abstract and theoretical. And I think that’s because people hear the day to day of politics and social argument on Radio Four and Newsnight and the Sunday Times and they’ve had that up to their ears, and they somehow want to think about the bigger issues underlying that. So I think there’s a huge potential for philosophy.”

The festival should run again in 2010, and in the meantime, the IAI is far from dormant. This summer, it ran “Camp Anarchy”, a weekend for kids in which they would debate what the rules should be for a society starting from scratch. (See news, p?)

Lawson is clearly very motivated to advance the standing of philosophy. “Philosophy has become more and more abstracted from people’s daily lives, so in a way, philosophers are a kind of joke in Britain. The only time they appear is in comedy and it seems to me really important to do something about this.” He’s certainly having a damn good try.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm

Letter from… Hong Kong

Stephen Palmquist reports from where money and philosophy mix

(cc) David Iliff

(cc) David Iliff

Philosophy is hardly the first thing that comes to one’s mind when thinking of Hong Kong. Skyscrapers, big business, and East-West trade are far more likely candidates for justifying the government’s claim that Hong Kong is “Asia’s World City” than any list of its most well-known scholars. Recalling Hong Kong’s past might conjure up images of Kung Fu movies, cheap imitations of just about anything, or gangsters riding rickshaws on their way to the next hit. Those days are swiftly passing away. Yet I have heard more than one local philosophy teacher say philosophy will never be a matter of great public interest here, because in Hong Kong only three things matter: money, money and (of course) more money.

But wait. Those who make such hasty judgements about the Pearl of the Orient might simply be looking in the wrong places for what counts as “philosophy”. In the academic world as much as in business, Hong Kong’s forte is East-West relations, and philosophy is no exception. We have numerous conferences on various topics familiar to Western philosophers, normally with an emphasis on how they relate to one or more (usually classical) Chinese systems of thought. Moreover, with the exception of a five year period of belt-tightening in the wake of the Asian financial crisis that followed shortly on the heels of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, there has been no shortage of money to fund such endeavours. As a result, local universities are able to “attract” many of the top names in philosophy to deliver keynote addresses or one-off lectures. As Sir Robert Walpole famously said, “every man has his price”—and these days in Hong Kong academia the same is obviously true of women! Recent years have seen prominent visits by the likes of Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, and other philosophers of similar stature.

With Hong Kong University ranked just above Stanford as number 18 on Quacquarelli Symonds’ 2007 list of the world’s top 100 universities, Hong Kong’s own academic scene is certainly not without its bright stars. What is less known to the outside world is that we have eight other tertiary institutions, whose high standards in this Mecca of competitive culture are arguably a key factor in the unprecedented recent success of the city’s leading academic light. Most of our tertiary institutions have departments of (or featuring) philosophy, and most of these have more than one widely published and influential philosopher in his or her specific field of expertise. The risk of selecting examples that don’t suit a particular reader’s taste in philosophy or assessment of significance leaves me reluctant to name names.

Another reason for not naming names is that in Hong Kong, perhaps more than most places in the world, philosophy should not be identified with any of its most well known academic representatives. In my 20+ years of experience living, working, and philosophizing here, I have observed that the most interesting and significant philosophy is usually not directly related to work being done in academia. Rather, philosophy is most deeply rooted in the life and thinking of the everyday citizen in a way that is not typical of most Western countries—France being a notable exception. Cultures where philosophy runs in the blood of the populace have less need to externalize the people’s love of wisdom in the whitewashed halls of academia, whereas those cultures wherein the daily life of the average citizen is devoid of philosophical tendencies have a real need to compensate for this lack by enthroning philosophy as queen of the academic court.

In asserting that philosophy flows through the blood of Hong Kong people, I run the risk of utter self-contradiction. After all, I have already named money as the focus of most people’s lives. How can both claims be true? I do not know if I can answer this question persuasively. I could appeal to the influence that the ancient wisdom of Confucius, Lao Tzu, and other Chinese sages have on every schoolchild here, informing his or her unconscious attitudes towards life in ways that may not be outwardly expressed on many occasions but are present and active nonetheless. But is this significantly different from the influence of the ancient Greeks and/or early Christian theologians on typical citizens of Western countries? Yes and no. Perhaps this is the most accurate answer. For Hong Kong is nothing if not a place of contradictions.

To find the deepest philosophical reflection in Hong Kong one must step outside the Academy and look to the areas where the best and brightest minds in Hong Kong tend to gravitate—whatever the reason. The plain fact is that Hong Kong’s best talent can be found in the business and finance sector. While the people running local financial institutions tend to be very good at what they do, few find deep fulfilment in the money side of their work. Instead, surprisingly many look to other sources for inspiration, including philosophy.

In 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese sovereignty and the year The Philosophers’ Magazine published its first issue, I attended the Third International Conference on Philosophical Practice in New York. There I was introduced, among other non-academic applications of philosophy, to the then new phenomenon of the “philosophy café”. The Hong Kong Philosophy Café I founded two years later has grown into a vibrant association of five branches sharing a common mailing list of over five hundred. Coming from all sectors of society, the participants typically include a few academic misfits, while the likes of bank managers, business consultants, government employees and entrepreneurs dominate the landscape.

In the course of attending hundreds of open discussions on just about every imaginable topic of philosophical discussion over the past eight and a half years, I have been privileged to observe numerous embodiments of the differences between typical Western and Chinese ways of thinking. A well known example is the tendency of Chinese culture to favour the community over the individual. An aspect of this tendency that permeates all aspects of Hong Kong society is the association of truth with authority rather than correspondence to reality, logical coherence, or similar Western criteria. To Western eyes, this often seems to lead to a lamentable refusal to question the status quo. The latter is a necessary condition for philosophical reflection, if ever there was one, so how can philosophy thrive in Hong Kong?

Individual respect for authority is not the whole story, for when the community acts together, it can question authority with a force and power rarely equalled in Western cultures. In recent years, hundreds of thousands (or by some counts, a million) took to the streets on 1 July to express their disapproval of government policies. Few public protests in European or North American countries, where individual autonomy supposedly reigns supreme, have come close to the numbers that are almost commonplace in Hong Kong.

While the people in general tend to exhibit the values of traditional Chinese culture, including the identification of truth with position, those educated in the West—i.e., the majority of the society’s leaders in both government and business—also exhibit a tendency to deny the significance of their deepest and arguably, most philosophically significant heritage: the Tao, the name that cannot be named.

Writing in 1934, Lin Yutang (the early twentieth-century Chinese version of G.K. Chesterton) expressed this tendency in words that would be unwise for any non-Chinese, non-British person to utter (With Love and Irony): “All Englishmen love a good liar, and so do the Chinese. We love to call a thing by anything except its right name.” Indeed, to philosophize in Hong Kong requires an appreciation for what Chuang Tzu called “Making All Things Equal”: the recognition of a “this” that is also a “that” and a “that” that is also a “this”.

A poignant example of the paradox of Hong Kong philosophy was once presented to me in a conversation with a local colleague, with whom I had been having an argument about how a particular administrative task should be conducted. At one point he noted that I had just affirmed a statement that contradicted a statement I had made earlier. When I replied that I was aware of this but did not wish to retract either statement since both appeared to be true, he harshly protested: “You are more Chinese than I am!”

The saddest aspect of that exchange was that my Western-educated, Chinese colleague was implicitly denigrating his own philosophical tradition, whereby truth is most assuredly not measured by Aristotelian principles of logical non-contradiction. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” There may be no worse indictment of the negative aspect of the pervasive Western influence on Hong Kong education than the fact that many local philosophers have lost the sense of their own tradition, whereby the Tao is deeper and truer than any “this” or “that” could possibly be.

Stephen Palmquist is professor of religion and philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University