Monthly Archives: August 2009

Can one be Jung and wise?

Paul Bishop argues that there is a real philosophical heart to Carl Jung’s psychoanalysis

jung200Few people think of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung as a philosopher. In fact, even he didn’t think of himself as one, and he made a series of nasty remarks about philosophers. (Any exclusively “rational” enterprise was regarded by Jung with great suspicion.) But, if we set aside our own prejudices about Jung, and plough our way through the eighteen volumes of his collected works, it’s hard not to get a nagging sense that, across these thousands of pages, a coherent philosophical argument emerges.

For one thing, philosophical names and concepts keep cropping up. For instance, Jung mentions the pre-Socratics (the ancient Greek thinkers that equally fascinated Jung’s contemporary, Heidegger), such as Diogenes the Cynic, and other pupils of the school of Antisthenes, who urged us to be comfortable about our sexual urges; Antiphon of Rhamnos, who stumbled across the fact that, by talking about their problems, people sometimes get better; Empodecles of Acragas, whose theory of the opposites fascinated Jung; and Heraclitus of Ephesus, dubbed “the Obscure”, to whom Jung attributed the idea of a sudden and unexpected change or reversal – an enantiodromia – a central idea in the therapy Jung proposed to his patients.

Jung was also genuinely excited by the problems posed by medieval Scholastic thought. For him, the apparently tedious debates about nominalism and realism (whether concepts exist only in language or in “reality”), reflected in the controversy over transubstantiation, revealed a historical fact – the permanence of two different “types”. As the German poet, Heinrich Heine, put it: “Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems – they are also types of two distinct human natures.” And these two different human natures tend to think in two entirely separate ways – two different psychologies. Most our problems, Jung believed, don’t come from our disagreement about the solutions to problems. They come from the fact that we don’t actually see a problem in the same way and so can’t even agree about what the problem is.

When pushed about his philosophical views, Jung usually came up with one name in particular: Kant. What Kant had done for the theory of knowledge – his “Copernican revolution”, according to which we bring forms and categories to bear upon the world, rather than the world itself actually consisting of those categories – Jung wanted to do for our psychology of behaviour. If we analyse our knowledge, Kant argued, it turns out to be structured by various sets of categories.

Jung takes this idea of categories (though not the categories themselves) and applies it to human attitudes toward what goes on in our lives. If we analyse human behaviour, he suggested, we find certain emotional structures keep occurring. He called these “archetypes”. We might keep finding ourselves, for instance, in situations that remind us of our earlier relationship to our mother or to our father (the maternal or paternal archetype). Or we relate to members of the opposite sex in a way that reflects, not the reality of the individuals in front of us, but the secret wishes and desires we project onto them (in the case of men, the “anima” or – for women – the “animus”). In some situations, having recourse to the playful, spontaneous attitude of the child can be an appropriate, even helpful response (this is, using the Latin word, activating the puer archetype). Those moments when we become aware of the dark, unwelcome aspects of ourselves we tend to hide away, and which are nevertheless part of what (and who) we are, Jung termed the encounter with the “shadow”. One of the most intriguing of these archetypes is called the “trickster”: sometimes charming, sometimes a bit difficult to handle (“tricky”, in fact), it can be a source of dynamic, creative thought.

Unfortunately, Jung tended to talk about these archetypes as if they were, in some sense, external to the human individual, and hence “out there”. This makes the archetypes seem something mysterious, even spooky, and definitely un-Kantian. But Jung’s essentially Kantian model makes it clear he is talking about the world as we see it and as we live in it – in Kant’s terms, the world “for us” – and precisely not, as Kant thought impossible, the world “in itself”.

So reading the history of philosophy helped Jung develop his idea of the psychology of types, and Kant’s argument that human consciousness actively constructs the picture of the world-as-we-see-it sparked in him the idea that, unconsciously, we categorise our affective or emotional experiences in certain “archetypal” forms.

But a particular strand of philosophical thought informs Jung’s thinking at such a deep level, that it gives it a coherence not even most followers of Jung seem to have recognised. This school of thought consists largely of German thinkers, and includes among them Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. In relation to these philosophers Jung’s psychology acquires its distinct, philosophical flavour.

Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche emphasized the dynamic, energic aspect of life, which they described as the will. And both sought to reconnect reflective thought with lived experience, to connect philosophy with life. The school of thought they represent is called vitalism, which reflects their concern with philosophical problems, not just on the technical level, but in relation to our living, our lived – vital – experience.

Although both men are frequently cited by Jung, he tends to gloss over a major difference in their respective vitalist positions, and in the way both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche relate meaning to life. For Schopenhauer, life is essentially meaningless: the will-to-life keeps compelling us onwards, but our satisfactions are, in fact, delusional; only our sufferings are real. His solution is to escape from life (and hence from suffering) by turning to art or by becoming a saint. In both cases, we see through the pointlessness of it all, and redeem ourselves.

In the case of Nietzsche, the starting-point is the same: life is essentially meaningless, but its pointlessness is precisely its point. His solution: at all costs avoid religion, but instead, by means of the will-to-power, turn the world itself into a work of art. There is no meaning; but we can create the meaning; and by this artistic-aesthetic act, we redeem the world.

So what does Jung do with these ideas? In one of Jung’s early lectures, he talks about developing a special kind of psychological understanding. He asks, how do we go about understanding a literary text, such as Goethe’s Faust, or admiring a work of architecture, such as Cologne cathedral? We can reduce a book to its historical sources, and we can understand a Gothic cathedral in terms of its mineral composition, as a pile of stones, even. But if we do that, we also lose sight of their meaning. What we need, he says, is an understanding that is “synthetic-constructive”, not “analytical-reductive”. Such an understanding should – in a phrase used by Ludwig Feuerbach – stand in “accord with the understanding of other reasonable beings”, and in this sense be “objective”. But the real reason why such an understanding is “real and effective” (wirklich und wirkend) is because it “connects with life”.

And it is how to develop a way of thinking that “connects with life” that lies at the heart of Jung’s philosophical project. One of the slogans he liked to repeat was “wirklich ist, was wirkt” – “whatever is real, works [i.e., has an effect]”. In other words, what is “real”, what is “objective”, is whatever makes an actual impact on our lives. Jung is trying to bridge – to heal, even – the disconnect, as he sees it, between Western philosophy and “real life” – our daily lives, the lives we actually lead in the (so-called) “real world”. What “really” matters, then, is what matters in life, because it makes a difference to our lives. Wirklich ist, was wirkt.

Seen in this light, Jung’s position is an amalgam of Schopenhauerian and Nietzschean thought. For a start, their (differing) concepts of the will re-emerge in Jung’s energic approach. On his account, the psyche is not simply a structure, it is something dynamic, something permanently becoming. (In his use of the energicy concept of libido, Jung believed he had found a “quantitative formula” for the “phenomenon of life”.) Moreover, he argues that we need to become aware of the “symbolic” dimension of life. Only the “symbolic” approach, Jung seeks to persuade us, can unite what, to other (non-vitalist) philosophical systems, are forever divided: body and mind/soul, the sensuous and the intellectual, the irrational and the rational. To paraphrase Nietzsche, we redeem the world when we see it – including ourselves – as a “symbolic phenomenon”.

Some of the most arresting pages in Jung’s works are those in which he outlines his conception of the symbol. “The symbol,” he tells us, “is always a creation of an extremely complex nature, since data proceeding from every psychic function have entered into its composition.” This is because “not only the data of reason, but also the irrational data of pure inner and outer perception, have entered into its nature.” Moreover, he tells us, “the prospective meaning and pregnant significance of the symbol appeals just as strongly to thinking as to feeling, while its peculiar plastic imagery, when shaped into sensuous form, stimulates sensation just as much as intuition.”

This all risks sounding very abstract. So what, in his aesthetic-vitalist philosophy, does Jung mean by the symbol and its “life-promoting significance”? In practical terms, Jung is trying to bring about in us a “symbolic attitude”, so that we may come to see, as Goethe did, our lives “symbolically”. For there is one view of things – a (superficially) “objective” view – which “places emphasis on pure actuality, and subordinates meaning to facts.” But opposed to this, Jung says, is another view of life – and, in a far richer sense, an “objective” one – that “endows all occurrences, whether great or small, with a meaning to which a deeper value is given than to pure actuality.” To see our lives as more than “pure actuality”, as possessing a “deeper value”, is what Jung means when he speaks (in a rather high-flown way) of “psychic transformation”.

But it’s not as esoteric as it sounds. Jung bases his conception of the symbol on Friedrich Schiller’s: it is lebende Gestalt or “living form”, both a form that lives, and a life that is lived in (aesthetic) form. By changing the way we see ourselves, we also change the world. By endowing what happens to us in our lives with meaning; by understanding our lives, as we would a book or a cathedral, in aesthetic terms; we engage on a project that is at once psychological and philosophical.

Today, in France, the philosopher Bertrand Vergely talks about the importance of “the symbolic life” (la vie symbolique) in terms that strongly echo Jung’s. “The discovery of the world as a symbolic world,” Vergely writes, “is a journey which procures an infinite joy.” For whereas “the world was silent, insignificant” – pure actuality, meaning subordinated to fact – “now, suddenly, it begins to resonate with thousands of meanings, which in turn animate an entire interior life unknown up to this point.” It is significant that Vergely offers this description of “the symbolic life” in a book dedicated to the philosophy of happiness.

Despite his banishment from the philosophy shelves in bookshops, Jung’s thought represents, in fact, a highly sophisticated philosophical position. (True, Jung was interested in Swedenborg, but then, so was Kant. True, Jung was fascinated by the occult, but even Nietzsche attended a séance.) Maybe it’s time we began to take Jung seriously as a philosopher. At the end of the “process of psychic transformation” stands, for Jung, the “happiness of the individual”. Using a beautiful image from the tradition of alchemy, we celebrate and exult in the “true May”. Rooted in the vitalist tradition of European thought, Jung’s aesthetic conception of the self turns out to be a vision of joy.

Paul Bishop is professor of German at the University of Glasgow and author of the two-volume Analytical Psychology and German Classical Aesthetics: Goethe, Schiller, and Jung (Routledge)

Mill in our time

Alan Haworth on how to read On Liberty today

mill200Getting to grips with the argument of a past philosophical classic can be like trying to make the acquaintance of a traveller from a strange and distant country; a country whose mores differ from those of your own. You have to make an effort because, if you really want to understand the message the traveller is carrying for you, you must first get a sense of where he or she is coming from. In the case of Mill’s On Liberty the effort is, perhaps, especially necessary; there are two reasons for this.

The first is that Mill’s text is a rich source of grandiloquent, quotable, lines: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”; “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way”; “if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility” ; “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Those are just four examples, and I could extend the list for a page or so. Whenever state interference or freedom of speech becomes a topical issue, you are more than likely to come across these ringing phrases, woodenly rehearsed by journalists and others who – one suspects – have a weak, if any, grasp of their source.

But lines taken out of context can betray the intention with which they were originally crafted. There is a danger that they will degenerate into “dead dogma” (Mill’s phrase). These are no exception, and it’s a fate they don’t deserve. As for the second reason, it is Mill’s temporal and cultural proximity to ourselves. One hundred and fifty years is not really such a long time; and the world Mill inhabited, if not exactly our own, is the one from which our own has developed. His is our “predecessor culture”, and the similarities between then and now are such that we may easily overlook the differences which also exist.

As an illustration of such a difference, take the intellectually patrician stance Mill tends to adopt. An obvious – even notorious – manifestation of this attitude is his argument, in Representative Government, that some individuals should be granted more votes than others. Mill proposes that members of “the liberal professions” and university graduates should have the most votes each – this at a time when there were few universities – that “a banker, merchant, or manufacturer” should have fewer votes, and manual labourers just one each. His argument is based on the assumptions that the earlier members of the list are, on average, the most intelligent – having benefited from a much better education and passed the exams to prove it – and the last are the least intelligent; and that the more intelligent should have a greater influence on the way the country is run. In the case of the “the manual labourer, whose employment is a routine, and whose way of life brings him in contact with no variety of impressions, circumstances, or ideas” his one vote also performs an educative function by giving him an interest in public affairs which he would not otherwise have. Mill may well have been a champion of working class aspiration but, as this makes clear, he was no comrade or mate.

You might dislike Mill’s attitude here, or you might think he has a point. My own point is only that, in our temperamentally demotic times, Mill’s patrician stance would have disqualified him from serious consideration. And the argument for plural votes is not an uncharacteristic slip or aberration: Mill’s work is infused with such an attitude.

It reappears in Representative Government in his argument for proportional representation, which, according to Mill, would ensure the presence of independently-minded intellectuals in the law-making body. “Though the superior intellects and characters will necessarily be outnumbered,” he writes, “it makes a great difference whether or not they are heard.”

In Utilitarianism it shows up in the form of his distinction between “higher” and “lower” pleasures, only persons with “higher faculties” being capable of experiencing the former.

In On Liberty it informs his argument for “the liberty of thought and discussion”, the point of the latter being that it facilitates discussion of intellectual matters and, as a consequence, the discovery of new truths. “The well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested,” says Mill. This may be a utilitarian argument, but it exemplifies a rather “superior” form of utilitarianism. As Mill warns in the introduction to On Liberty, he is concerned with “utility in the largest sense” here, – a utility “grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”

However, it would be too easy to label Mill’s attitude “elitist” and pigeonhole it accordingly. In any case, it is obvious that he was a staunch egalitarian. To see that, you need only read The Subjection of Women or, for that matter, “The Contest in America”. In that essay, he lends his unequivocal support to the northern side in its struggle against the secessionist southern states, whose action he contemptuously terms “the slaveholder rebellion”. It would be more accurate to describe Mill not as an elitist but as an anti-populist, and the two are not at all the same.

You will see what I mean if you consider another feature, characteristic of Mill’s approach, and that is his sense of having lived though interesting times. Rather as commentators in our own time are apt to express their amazement at the recent pace of “globalisation”, so Mill believed himself to have witnessed fundamental changes, changes which had taken place since the time of Bentham, over the course of just one generation. In Mill’s opinion, the most significant of these was the rise of a sizeable working and lower middle class. Not only had the most numerous social class become yet more numerous, it had also changed its character. This was no longer the insurrectionary rabble so feared by the Duke of Wellington, who hadn’t been kidding when he berated railways for encouraging “the lower orders” to move about the country. It had been replaced by a new working/middle class whose members were, in the main, sober, hard-working, thrifty, sensible of their “respectability”, conscientiously religious, and, most of all, oppressively conformist.

As Mill saw it, the conformism had come about through a levelling process, a tendency to “equality of conditions”. It was the same process described by Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, (“equality of Conditions” being what Tocqueville means by “democracy”). In his review of the latter – a very positive review – Mill argues that, although there are differences between America and Britain, it is possible to detect the same process at work in Britain too.

Not that you could turn back history; Mill agreed with Tocqueville that “Democracy, in the modern world, is inevitable.” However, there was a phenomenon which particularly alarmed both of them, namely “the tyranny of the majority”, as they both called it. This is described by Mill, in On Liberty, as “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”, “the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them” and “compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own”. In short, it is the social pressure not to step out of line.

But what is so wrong with social conformity? After all, there is nothing self-evidently wrong with ordinariness, or, for that matter, anything self-evidently virtuous in just being different. Could it be that Mill is guilty of romanticising eccentricity? I don’t think so, for Mill could answer the question by invoking the account of the individual which lies at the core of his utilitarian moral philosophy – his view of “human nature” one might call it. As a utilitarian, and like Bentham, Mill considered the desire for happiness the basic form of human motivation. However, whereas Bentham had crudely equated happiness with a positive balance of pleasure over pain, and pleasure with the having of pleasurable sensations, it was against this view of humans as sensation-seeking calculating machines that Mill spent the greater part of his life rebelling.

It is against it, also, that he writes, in On Liberty, that, “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” As this shows, it is Mill’s view that, for any individual, that person’s good is, ultimately, a matter of the development and the exercise of his or her own talents and abilities. (In fact, “happiness” seems rather too clumsy a word with which to describe this.)

I think I have said enough by now to show that the real J.S. Mill was rather different from the sloganising ultra-liberal of the journalists’ caricature. If we are to understand his arguments correctly, we need to know something about the attitudes and preoccupations which animated him – for it is from these that the arguments derive their point; and that includes the arguments of On Liberty.

To summarise the features of Mill’s world-view I have been describing, with an account of how they connect: first, Mill held that fundamental changes were under way. There is an essay, “The Spirit of the Age”, in which he puts it as follows: “A man may not be either better or happier at six-and-twenty, than he was at six years of age, but the same jacket which fitted him then, will not fit him now.” Mill’s point is that, “Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones.”

Second, Mill thought that the changes in question – the movement towards “equality of conditions” – merited a cautious welcome. There was scope for the development of a social and political framework within which individuals could develop and exercise their capabilities to the full. On the other hand, we could end up with nothing more than a stultifying “tyranny of the majority”. The situation needed managing. It was desirable but, as he wrote in his review of Tocqueville, “only under certain conditions, and those conditions capable, by human care and foresight, of being realised, but capable also of being missed.” There is, thus – and third – a need for an injection of intelligence and a role for intellectuals to play. Hence the “intellectually patrician” attitude I described earlier.

It is in the light of the foregoing that it becomes possible to see the principles set out and defended in Mill’s celebrated essay for what he intended them to be, and that is the principles which, under modern conditions, any authority must observe and enforce if it is to make it possible for every individual to develop and exercise his or her capabilities and talents to the fullest extent; to realise their individual goods, in other words. So, for example, where there is no known set of institutions guaranteed to promote human “improvement”, it has to be the case that, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” There can be no other justification for the exercise of power. As for Mill’s famous defence of “the liberty of thought and discussion”, it is just what it says on the tin, namely a defence of “thought” and “discussion”. As we have already noted, the point of that liberty, so far as Mill is concerned, is to facilitate the discovery of new truths and, as a consequence, progress. Free speech fundamentalists who treat Mill’s argument as defence of the liberty to say or publish whatever one likes, in whatever context and however offensive it may be, should reflect that the Mill who condemned all silencing of opinion as an “assumption of infallibility” is the very same Mill who wrote, in an essay, “Law of Libel and the Liberty of the Press”, that, “the press may be so employed as to require punishment, we are very far from denying; it may be made the instrument of almost every imaginable crime.” They should ask themselves what the “fit” between these two claims might be.

Finally, what if you were to encounter Mill’s ghost as you wandered the City of London’s streets? What if you were to engage him in conversation? What reflections would he venture on the state of the world as we now find it? Remember that he was a political radical, an egalitarian, resistant to the “tyranny of the majority” and a believer in the role of the intellectual. Therefore, it is pretty clear, I think, that he would have something to say about the power of the tabloids to manipulate opinion, as well as on the tyranny of “dumbing-down” celebrity culture. As I have said, egalitarianism and populism need not be at all equivalent.

It seems obvious that Mill would have been delighted by the election of an African-American to the office of president. But would he have been surprised? In 1873 Mill witnessed the election of a Jew, Disraeli, to the post of Prime Minister – and this by an electorate which was all-male, predominantly “white Anglo-Saxon” and, no doubt, more or less casually anti-semitic in its attitudes. It could be that Mill would have been more surprised, not to say delighted, by the fact that the electorate of the USA – a country in which he, like Tocqueville, considered that the pressure to conform was doing more to suppress independence of thought than in any other – had voted in large numbers for, of all people, an intellectual. He would have found hope in that.

Alan Haworth is senior research fellow at the Global Policy Institute and the author of Free Speech (Routledge)

Review: Beauty by Roger Scruton

Jenny Bunker sees an unashamed elitist betrayed by popular packaging

Beauty by Roger Scruton (Oxford University Press) £10.99/$19.95 (hb)

scruton200The cheery gnome on the back cover, the patronising blurb, the brevity of the book itself, all suggest that Beauty is another addition to the well-stocked Introduction to Aesthetics shelves. That is not what Scruton has given us. Indeed Beauty reads far more like a conclusion than an introduction – sweeping in scope but by no means a comprehensive treatment of the topic, rich in resonances with Plato, Hume, Kant and Schopenhauer among many others but offering little in the way of analysis of their work. This, it is clear, represents the distillation of a career’s worth of thought on the subject: confident, ruminative and idiosyncratic rather than thorough and impartial.

Perhaps, then, we should forgive the absence here of the taught, detailed argumentation familiar from Scruton’s earlier works on aesthetics. For much of the book Scruton seems content simply to offer a phenomenology of aesthetic experience – a register of its typical features – rather than an explanation of what makes such experience possible or an account of whether it has any firm grounding. This can feel frustrating; far more so, though, are the cop-outs and deferrals that pepper the text: the beauty of Titian’s painting and that of the Venus of Urbino herself coincide “in some mysterious way”, in artworks and sacred objects our lives’ meanings are “somehow” summarised and consecrated. The most trying of these lapses concerns the central idea of a “kingdom of ends”, a Kantian conceit which recurs time and again without ever being satisfyingly skewered.

If arguments aren’t always in evidence, then opinions certainly are, and Scruton doesn’t fight shy of the big questions in aesthetic theory. On the form/content debate Scruton sides with the expressionists, insisting that no strict separation can be maintained, but also that appeals to emotional content are no less legitimate than the figurative language used by formalists themselves.

On the question of a standard of taste, he takes a Humean stance according to which beauty is a quality of experiences rather than objects and the closest approximation to an aesthetic rule we can hope for is a set of criteria for putative judges. This subjectivism granted, Scruton nonetheless maintains that artworks convey particular meanings and that reasons can be given and minds changed in the case of judgements of taste just as much as with moral judgements. In fact possessing an intentional, cognitive dimension is, he suggests, one of the principle characteristics common to the four varieties of beauty – human, natural, “everyday” and artistic – under discussion in this work.

If a concern with everyday beauty (the nicely-laid table, the stylish outfit) sounds surprisingly democratic, the reader needn’t fear that Scruton has suddenly turned over a progressive leaf – if anything, Beauty develops an increasingly conservative twang with each passing chapter. By the end of the book the tone is elegiac, even sermonising. Scruton mourns beauty’s betrayal by both artists and theorists during the course of the twentieth century. “Art,” he remarks, with a stern eye on Duchamp’s Fontaine, “picked up the torch of beauty, ran with it for a while, and then dropped it in the pissoirs of Paris.” Arthur Danto, too, gets a black mark for arguing, according to Scruton, that beauty “is both deceptive as a goal and in some way antipathetic to the mission of modern art”.

Scruton himself plausibly diagnoses art’s restless pursuit of innovation over the last hundred years as a reaction against kitsch, but for him the cure is no better than the disease. Both are forms of desecration, denying beauty lest they be judged and found wanting in the light of it.

With beauty, as with love, we enter the realm of the sacred. Beauty’s function is to offer solace, to persuade us that we find a fitting home in the universe and that human life is worth the living. Our responsibility, in turn, is to educate our tastes with the hope of reaching consensus, something that will require sacrifice and mutual accommodation. If we fail, we risk living without either civilization or love – the holocausts and gulags of the last century warning that we may already have fallen into that state. At stake, for Scruton, is not only the future of art but that of humanity itself. To educate oneself aesthetically, it seems, has become an urgent moral duty.

Beauty is too slight a book to contain the sheer volume of argumentation that would be needed to make such weighty, apocalyptic pronouncements compelling – to fill in the gaps, we may need to return to Scruton’s much more closely argued back-catalogue. But if this latest work is too elliptical to fulfill its author’s ambitions, it is far too interesting to satisfy those looking for a pithy introduction.

Jenny Bunker is a lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University

Letter from… Singapore

Axel Gelfert reports from where the ivory tower meets the crystal palace

(cc) Nathan Hayag

(cc) Nathan Hayag

When Fyodor Dostoevsky visited London in 1862, one of the lasting impressions the city left on him was the extraordinary Crystal Palace, a huge iron and glass structure built by Joseph Paxton for the World Exhibition of 1851. So impressed was Dostoevsky that only a few years later the Crystal Palace would feature prominently in his Notes from Underground (1865), perhaps the first explicit anti-globalisation diatribe in the history of world literature. In this book, Dostoevsky’s narrator (“Underground Man”) declares: “New economic relations will follow, ready-made and also calculated with mathematical precision, so that all possible questions will disappear in a single instant, since they have all been provided with answers; and then the Crystal Palace will arise.” The narrator then takes exception to his imaginary interlocutor’s view of the Crystal Palace as a modern utopia: “I am perhaps afraid of this edifice just because it is crystal and forever imperishable, and because it will be impossible even stealthily to stick out a tongue at it.” In the words of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, what Dostoevsky rejects in this passage is the promise of an “air-conditioned golden cage of luxury, governed by an eternal springtime of consensus.”

I was reflecting on Sloterdijk’s remark recently, while I was having dinner with a friend at one of Singapore’s better Chinese chain restaurants, appropriately named Crystal Jade Palace and located amidst the usual brand-name luxury boutiques in the (heavily air-conditioned) upscale Ngee Ann City Mall. What, I asked myself, would Dostoevsky have made of the ritualised consumerism that goes on daily along one of Singapore’s main tourist attractions, the three-mile long Orchard Road, believed to have the biggest concentration of shopping malls in the entire world? Perhaps he would be appalled by the excesses of modern materialism, but he would hardly be surprised. He might even find it ironic that his very own “Underground Man” would also find his place in this environment – after all, Singapore is also home to the region’s largest underground mall, which links its subway system to the city’s new concert hall and, yes, more malls. No doubt, Underground Man would quickly be assimilated into the system, his dissent channelled into more productive forms of expression.

Few cities have profited more from economic globalisation than Singapore. Indeed, the history of modern Singapore only dates back to 1819, when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles established a British trading post on the tropical island. Only moderately successful at first, the island was made a Crown Colony in 1867 and quickly became the major port in the region and, after World War I, an important naval base for the British. In a country with little patience for nostalgia, the colonial history nonetheless does provide a common focus – if only because most of the major ethnic groups (Chinese, Indian, most Malays, and of course the local Eurasians) ended up in Singapore as the result of successive waves of immigration that were closely associated with Singapore’s colonial history. Etched into the more recent collective memory, however, are two major events: the Japanese occupation from 1942-5 and Singapore’s eviction, in 1965, from the newly formed Malaysia. It was this last event, and a series of shrewd (and, on occasion, ruthless) political moves that set Singapore on the path “From Third World to First” (also the title of the first prime minister’s, now “Minister Mentor”, Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography).

Throughout Singapore’s brief history, philosophy seems notable only by its absence. One reason, it seems fair to suggest, is the island’s tropical climate. As Lee Kuan Yew once put it, “before air-con, mental concentration and with it the quality of work deteriorated as the day got hotter and more humid.” (Hence Lee Kuan Yew’s firm belief that the air-conditioner was one of the most significant inventions in history, which has led at least one political commentator to refer to Singapore as “the air-conditioned nation” with its “politics of comfort and control”.)

But even if philosophers do not figure prominently in the history of Singapore, philosophy nonetheless has a long tradition on the island. A “Straits Philosophical Society” was founded as early as 1893, with the goal of engaging in critical discussions on philosophy, theology, history, literature, science, and the arts. Its Proceedings and Transactions were edited by the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) educational reformer Lim Boon Keng (who also was the first Malayan to enter Edinburgh University on a Queen’s Scholarship). Others were less fortunate in their pursuit of philosophy in Singapore: the moral philosopher R.M. Hare recalls how he was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in 1942, and sent to Changi prison, where he spent the next three and a half years writing “a few pages at a time” of a 150-page essay, tentatively (and, as Hare admits, pretentiously) titled “My Philosophy”.

In the post-war period, and especially after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965, much emphasis was placed on improving secondary as well as higher education, utilising both as a tool of nation-building. This meant that authorities were sometimes quick to pounce on any perceived interference with domestic politics, or mixing of politics and academia. One of the culmination points of these tensions was the so-called “Enright affair” of 1960, when the newly appointed Professor of English D.J. Enright was publicly denounced as a “mendicant” and “beatnik professor” for including in his inaugural lecture some (by most standards, quite tame) remarks on the government’s attempts to impose from above its vision of a “proper” Asian culture.

Tensions rarely boiled over again in this spectacular fashion, not least because the rise of Singapore as an economic centre was accompanied by a transformation of the once vibrant, if sometimes violent, political culture of the country into a more predictable (and, hence, investment-friendly) political climate. While the days are gone when, as Paul Theroux (who was a lecturer at the University of Singapore in the late 1960s) wrote, “the media are dull beyond belief because of the heavy censorship”, the alignment of economic and political interests ensured that, for a long time, public debate was tame and heavily moderated.

Higher education in Singapore over the last decade has seen a dramatic expansion and shift in attitude. New major publicly-funded universities were created, such as Singapore Management University with its focus on economics and the social sciences; and it is not uncommon for academics – including philosophers – to be recruited for national committees on bioethics and, more recently, to be asked to make recommendations on how best to liberalise some of the country’s more restrictive laws (such as a wholesale ban on “party political films”).

After years of focusing on engineering and the natural sciences, universities have seen a steady growth, both in terms of faculty and student numbers, in the arts and social sciences. Following a series of new appointments, both at the National University and at Singapore Management University, academic philosophy in Singapore has now fully entered the mainstream of English-language academic philosophy, while also maintaining a leading presence in Chinese philosophy. What makes the situation special is that many, if not most, of those philosophers working in Asian philosophy are also well-versed in Western traditions (though, admittedly, not the other way around), thus making communication across disciplinary boundaries possible and fruitful.

Over the past few years, Singapore has begun to invest heavily in biotechnology. Researchers in the arts and social sciences recently joined forces in the form of a “Science, Technology, and Society Research Cluster”, in order to analyse the social and historical basis and the philosophical implications of modern biotechnology. Such interest in the history and philosophy of science is not without precedent: from 1962 onwards, the University of Singapore ran what, by all accounts, was one of the first dedicated B.A. programmes in the history and philosophy of science – only for the course to be closed down in 1967 as the result of internal university politics (though “low student numbers” were cited as the official reason).

Singapore’s most recent foray into biotechnology has resulted in new science parks springing up like mushrooms, with such fanciful names as “Biopolis” or “Fusionopolis”. For philosophers, historians, and sociologists to study those “crystal palaces” of science will be a serious temptation. What will eventually come out of this encounter between philosophy, the humanities, and the biosciences, is an open question. This much seems certain: consensus will remain as elusive as ever.

Axel Gelfert is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy, and a member of the Science, Technology, and Society Research Cluster, at the National University of Singapore.

Profile: Giambattista Vico

Giorgio Baruchello on arguably Italy’s greatest ever philosopher.

Vico by Gareth Southwell

Vico by Gareth Southwell

The Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) is one of those thinkers of whom much is heard and little is read. Perhaps because he has been depicted mainly as the forerunner of other, more famous thinkers (especially Hegel and Herder), and as following established currents of thought, many acknowledge his contribution to the history of Western philosophy, but few actually read his writings. Still, this relegation to the periphery of the philosophical canon reflects somehow the unorthodox character of his life and of his scholarly achievements, which, as Gramsci stated, moved from “a small, dead corner of history.”

Vico spent his life tormented by indigence and illness. Nevertheless, he succeeded in gaining a vast, comprehensive erudition in law, philology, and philosophy, as he worked as a lawyer, a tutor, and a professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples. He believed it a fundamental trait of human nature that we long for knowledge. Why that is the case, however, is unknown to us: we can only observe that it is so. There are limits, in other words, to that which we can know.

In De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, 1710) we find Vico’s most forceful expression of this realisation: “verum ipsum factum” – only that which is made by the human being can be known in depth. Exhaustive knowledge can be gained only in the human sciences. Human beings cannot know the reasons which lie behind the existence of the realities they observe in nature; so only a partial, hypothetical knowledge is possible of those things of which the human being is not the author. Human reason is severely limited when dealing with the understanding of the natural world, whose author is, presumably, God.

Vico was writing against the well-established intellectual faith of his time, which proclaimed the natural sciences as the highest expression of human reason (logic and mathematics were included in this privileged disciplinary group). Vico intended to defend the humanistic tradition with its curriculum of studies comprising classical literature, jurisprudence, history, oratory, and foreign languages. Throughout his writings, Vico tried to show how human reason cannot work ahistorically, as a pure, neutral instrument of discovery, one which does not depend upon the motives, aims, expectations, and prejudices of people. For Vico, the truth may be achieved, but not by letting reason operate in the void – context is required.

In his best-known work, The New Science (1725), Vico stresses the centrality of culture in and for any intellectual endeavour, the natural sciences included. Knowledge relies upon understanding, and, in turn, understanding relies upon tacit beliefs, which are the result of the history of one’s personal development within a variously-layered historical reality. Sensus communis (common sense) is, for Vico, the fundamental ground out of which all forms of human knowledge spring and to which, ultimately, they are bound to return. Sensus communis, in his words, is “judgement without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, an entire nation, or the entire human race.”

This fundamental cultural ground is contained already in the myths, traditions, and poetical metaphors of human culture. They anticipate, inform, and sustain any explicit act of intellectual scrutiny of reality, thus providing the implicit background justifying the choice, worth, and communicability of inquiry. For Vico, much modern scientific knowledge is contained already in the allegories of poetry, the insights of religion, the images of art. Moreover, these involve an ability of which science is devoid, namely the ability to address and involve in the cognitive process the human body and the human heart.

In his New Science, Vico specifies a fundamental “dialectical” structure regulating the historical development of human knowledge. This structure can be represented as a moving spiral of occurrences and recurrences (corsi e ricorsi storici), along which moments of collapse and of regress in the human understanding of the universe are as unavoidable as the overall progress of the human species from the bestial state to the civilised state. For Vico, history repeats itself, but never in an identical fashion, and always along a necessary path of amelioration, which adds new steps to the old ones, and never erases any. Taken as a whole, human culture advances through the centuries in the same fashion as the individual person matures through the years. Both start from the “age of the senses” (or “divine age”), and, via the “age of fantasy” (or “heroic age”), they reach the “age of reason” (or “human age”), yet without ever discarding completely either that which had been previously experienced by means of the “non-“ or “pre-rational” faculties, or these faculties themselves.

Suggested reading
On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians (Cornell University Press)
On the Study Methods of our Times (Cornell University Press)
The New Science (Cornell University Press)

Giorgio Baruchello is Senior Lecturer at the University of Akureyri, Iceland

The skeptic

Wendy Grossman is a humourless spoilsport and proud of it

tortoise200Skeptics are supposed to be humourless spoilsports and for once I’m going to conform to the stereotype. I’m writing just after April Fool’s Day, and there’s been the usual panoply of spoof news stories peppering the major media. The one most often cited to me from this year’s crop was the Guardian‘s plan to limit all stories to the 140-character maximum length allowable in Twitter messages (“tweets”).

Twitter, if you haven’t read any British newspapers for the last six months, is the leading microblogging service; think of microblogging as blogging for the SMS/mobile phone generation. Yeah, yeah, sad, yeah, pathetic, yeah, yeah, waste of time, yeah, yeah, you watch, in a year or two you’ll be talking about how useful it is.

In fact, the story went on, the paper is busily converting its entire archive of news stories to the new length and adopting the slogan “All the news that’s fit to tweet” before the New York Times (“All the news that’s fit to print”) could grab it.

Isn’t anyone but me tired of these shenanigans?

At this point, it’s traditional for some sourpuss to pop up and say that the reason I feel this way is that I’m No Good at writing April Fool’s spoof stories. There is some justice to this accusation. I wrote one, once, and I’ll be the first to admit the results didn’t set the world of comedy alight. But the experience did teach me why these things continue: journalists like writing them. (This is also the secret to why Twitter is getting so much press: it’s perfect for the hummingbird-flitting mentality of most of us.)

But that’s really not enough of a reason to keep doing them.

Sure: harmless jokes, just for entertainment and fun. Right.

The thing is that jokes don’t always stay jokes. As part of putting together a book to be published by the same fine folks as run this magazine, Why Statues Weep: The Best of The Skeptic, I’ve had occasion to reread a piece we ran years ago by David Langford, best known for winning more Hugo awards for fan writing than anyone else, ever. A slightly deranged publisher convinced Langford, back in 1979, that writing a UFO hoax would be a good idea. Langford obliged with a purportedly modern repackaging of a (Langford-penned, in Victorian style) manuscript he attributed to one of his wife’s great-great-grandfathers and claimed to have found in the secret compartment of a desk in his attic. In what he now calls “satanic webs of deception” the story, which tells of a close encounter experienced by one William Robert Loosley, has gone all over the place. Whitley Streiber cited it as genuine in his novel Majestic.

In 1996, Langford wrote in Fortean Times in a column available on his Web site, “Despite various giveaways in the text and on the jacket (where the biography of learned physicist Langford had suspiciously many mentions of sf), the central story seemed plausible enough to take on a ghastly life of its own.”

And this is the thing. The Internet (and the offline world, too, of course) is filled with stuff that is MDW: misleading, debatable, and wrong. (It’s also filled with stuff that’s ITR: intelligent, thoughtful, and right.) It is hard enough to convince people that, for example, the Face on Mars is due to advanced human pattern recognition rather than intent on the part of Martians; that astrology and Nostradamus seem persuasive because when we read stuff we look for the ways it relates to us and things that are familiar to us; and that psychics typically feed back to us information we’ve already told them. The difficulty of debunking the MDW masquerading as ITR is why sites like Snopes , Quackwatch , and The Skeptic’s Dictionary require so much work to create and maintain. Do we have to deliberately inflate the supply of MDW every year?

You may think – and I might even agree with you – that the stuff that makes good April Fool’s stories is – or winds up being – too ludicrous for anyone to seriously believe. But, unlike the stories published every day in The Onion, which are typically designed to be clearly satirical, the whole game with April Fool’s news stories is convincing people that the stories are genuine so that they’ll feel Really Stupid when they find out the truth. Google and Virgin to launch a Mars mission? A tortoise addicted to smoking? A mobile phone service that gives people maps showing where their spouses are? These are all stories the Daily Telegraph picked as the ones the paper wasn’t sure about. The last one is actually sort of almost true: Google’s new Latitude service allows user-selected friends to see each others’ whereabouts.

I mean, honestly. Don’t we already have enough work to do?

Wendy Grossman is founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic magazine.

In vino veritas

Julian Baggini takes on his toughest assignment yet – drinking wine with Barry C Smith and Tim Crane

Tim Crane

Tim Crane

Socrates once said, “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” It’s one of the pithier ways of expressing the idea that philosophers, as evidently good men, should care not for pleasures of the flesh, but should strive for higher goods of the mind. So why am I sitting in an up-market London restaurant with two leading philosophers eating fine food and drinking several different rather good wines?

“We have lost track of the senses,” says Barry Smith, the editor of a new book, Questions of Taste: the philosophy of wine, which came out of a conference he organised on the subject at the University of London. “What are the senses for other than for making finer and finer discriminations of the world around us? People have been labouring in the fields and vineyards, they have made the best they can of the sun, soil and vines they have been given and they have passed it on for us to understand. It’s bad if we as philosophers, aware of our senses, aware of the power of discrimination, don’t even respond to their labour.”

Tim Crane, a contributor the volume, expressed a little scepticism. Smith is undeterred. John Stuart Mill may not have included refined sensory enjoyment, such as is offered by wine appreciation, in his category of higher pleasures, but Smith thinks he would have done, had he actually gone out there and tried it.

“The point about high quality, very fine, handmade wine is that it gives me the opportunity to exercise my capacity for sensual pleasure and my intellectual powers of discrimination. If we were just satisfied with a big sugar hit or instant hedonic satisfaction, why would we go to the effort of taking our time and comparing wines? We’re not getting drunk, we’re not indulging ourselves in a gluttonous way. We are using all of our smart powers of discrimination to think about what we’re given, to think about what it’s doing for us, where it came from and how it came to be this way.”

Maybe Smith and Crane weren’t getting drunk, but after a whole evening of serious wine tasting, I’m not sure I could make the same boast.

We had started off with a 1982 Mosel from Germany in Smith’s office at the University of London’s Birkbeck College. Crane noted in passing that German wine labelling is very complicated, but although the same could be said for much German philosophising, it turned out he wasn’t trying to make a philosophical point.

“Riesling as a grape has kerosene as one of its stereotypical notes on the nose,,” said Smith as he poured, which I confessed did not inspire confidence. “This is why people who say taste and smell are just the same thing are talking rubbish, I don’t want to drink something that tastes like kerosene.’

“We smell first, keeping the wine very still. You get the more volatile compounds coming off first. Then you swirl it, and it’s quite different. Now you get the fruit and minerals aromas together.”

I follow his instructions and he seems to be right. But I’m immediately suspicious. Aren’t there all sorts of psychology experiments in which the power of suggestion makes people believe they have experienced something that they actually never did? How do I know I am actually been made to recognise a smell rather than just believing I’ve whiffed something I haven’t?

“There’s no contradiction in saying that someone who is good at identifying flavours can coax it out of you,” explains Crane. I’m not very good at putting names to tastes and the other night we had a wine and I asked Tim Lewens what it smelt like. He immediately said ‘apricots’, and it was a red wine, and you wouldn’t have expected that. But as soon as he said apricots I knew what it was and I was able to put a name to it because he prompted me.”

“Someone can call your attention to something and I think that shows you there really are things in conscious experience which we don’t attend to but are really there,” says Smith.

“We think there’s a distinction between experiencing a taste and making a judgement about a taste, that for example, you like it,” continues Crane. “Remember when you first tasted beer? I can actually call that bitter taste to mind. Is it the case that it tastes the same to you and now you like that taste; or has the actual taste changed, because when I first tasted it was horrible? What Barry is saying is that’s a real distinction, between the taste changing and your attitude to the taste changing. Dennett, for example, says there’s no reality to that distinction.”

Smith goes on to explain more about why Dennett is wrong. “A lot of the Dennett-like examples of how things change when we attend to them are saying that essentially there are just neural goings on??, and that attending to them brings things to consciousness, and consciousness is actually quite sparse, perception is quite sparse. That’s not right, and I think wine tasting shows why. You’re having an experience which is very complex, and it rushes past you in a few seconds. Then I say to you, ‘Did you get the mint? Did you get the pear?’ and so on. The experience is gone, but you think to yourself, ‘Hang on, yes.’ You could say this is only because I’ve suggested it, but people are really quite resistant if you suggest, say, green pepper, and you just didn’t get that. So when you say ‘yes’, the thought is that the ‘yes’ is matching a judgement against something, something that was an experience but which was not noticed at the time. So I think what we call wine tasting as opposed to drinking is enormously complicated. There’s having the experience and there’s the attention to the experience.”

This view has an implication which goes against what passes for common sense about taste, which is that it is an entirely subjective phenomenon.

“People think of taste as a greater candidate for purely subjective experience,” says Smith. “They say that tasting only happens when I’m putting something in direct contact with the inside of me and ingesting it, destroying it.. Then they say, ‘Doesn’t that mean that taste is really a private, personal, incommunicable experience? How can you gainsay my taste?’ We think it’s subjective. On the other hand we know that there must be some objective basis for our judgements about a wine’s quality and properties. After all, huge amounts of money changes hands on the basis of predicting the quality of wines that will give people pleasure. There’s a science of all this which is enormously complicated which is in the service of trying to produce a certain range of subjective experiences that they know people will find immensely rewarding and pleasurable.”

“Barry wants to emphasise the tastes as objective,” explains Crane. “The objective tastes are what you taste. Some people, however, have better abilities to apprehend different qualities of the taste, just as with music some people simply have the capacity to hear more in something. Here the analogy is between hearing and listening; or seeing and looking. There’s what you see and then there’s whether or not you are attending to what you see, and it’s the same with listening and hearing. With taste there has to be that distinction too, but we don’t actually have the words for it.”

“I really have great faith in people’s ability to be changed forever by having their epiphany with an experience of a wine that is so compelling, complex, balanced and beautiful,” Smith continues. “At that moment they think, I’m not just attending to something going on in me, personal and private. I’m taking cognisance of something with extraordinary beauty. And I’m wondering, how does it do that?

“Part of the interest in wine is thinking about what it is like, not just what its like for us, and wrapped up in that experience of what it’s like is a concentration on the object. It’s doing something remarkable, and perhaps even its qualities are not known straight away. You can attend and learn more, and get more out of it. When you come to have this experience and see it as not all happening in you, but acknowledging the quality, character and properties of the thing itself, then you celebrate the wine: how does that object give me and other people this experience? As soon as you get to that point you give up the idea that the taste is in you. There are only three possibilities: the taste is in me, the taste is in the wine, or it’s a relation between it and me. I try to defend the idea that the taste is in the wine, and therefore we might miss some of it.”

Evidence for this case comes from our reaction to a really good wine – which is immediately hand it to someone else and say “Taste this!”

“I know that when I taste something great I often think of who I’d like to share it with and often have particular people in mind,” agrees Smith. “So through our subjective responses to an object, as the common source those experiences, we actually understand someone else’s subjectivity. It’s a way in which we get quite close to other people, a wonderful way in which we’re securing a non-verbal agreement, understanding or sharing at the level of very subjective exchanges.

“I know some of Tim’s tastes and he knows some of mine, and I’ll often think I’ll want him to try this, and it’s not shot in the dark stuff, it’s quite predictable. We can predict other people’s phenomenology.

“Taste is under-described in philosophy. What we’re calling wine tasting is not one sense. It involves touch, taste and smell, and probably also sight. There’s a lot of neuroscience and research coming together on taste. It turns out that most of the things we call taste are the result of cross-modal perception. Here’s something we can all do: we swirl this around, have a smell, and you might say ‘Smells sweet.’ Smells sweet? Isn’t sweet a taste? But actually we have no problem with that. We think sweet is also a smell. Certain smells prime us to have sweet tastes. There have been some beautiful experiments done with vanilla, for example. When you smell vanilla in a wine, people expect it to be a mark of sweetness. If you add vanilla odours and you get people to taste a range of wines, for the same wine, one with the odour, one without, they’ll say the one with the odour is sweeter.”

Usually when such experiments are reported it is assumed that they show people are easily fooled about their sense experiences, and so you might think it tells against the idea of objectivity in taste. Smith disagrees.

“I don’t think they’re making a mistake. The interaction of taste and smell actually creates the total experience. These are predictable effects. Here’s another thing we know: texture makes a difference: the more viscous a wine is the sweeter people will say it is. When these effects are strictly predicable it’s objective: we know that this dimension and that dimension interacting with such and such a ratio will have these perceptible effects, and they do. That doesn’t tell against objectivity.”

So even colour can be part of what we normally call flavour?

“Exactly right.”

“People are sometimes pleased to report to you that wine tasters were told they were going to be drinking red wine, but on fact they were blindfolded, given white wine and they described it wrongly,” says Crane. “All that shows is that the judgements that people come out with are partly the function of their expectations. It doesn’t show that there’s no way of telling the difference between red wine and white wine.”

It was time to move on to Arbutus, a restaurant where almost the entire, very good, wine list is available in 250ml carafes, and set about comparing and contrasting. Smith continued to develop his objectivity thesis.

“It is one thing to judge the quality of the wine: how well does it do the sorts things which it’s meant to do for that grape variety, where it’s from etc. It is another to ask, do you like it? I’m sure very good wine critics could say this could be great vintage for this wine, but it’s not for me.”

Objectivity, however, is not the only philosophical topics we mull over. For example, Crane is interested in the idea of snobbery.

“Snobbery is valuing something that shouldn’t be valued, which isn’t really a source of value. It has to be some kind of mistake. I think there is genuine wine snobbery, which is making judgements by reputation or price. However, if someone knows a lot about wine and imposes those standards on other people, it doesn’t make them a snob, but it might make them a bore. I have a technical definition of a bore: a bore is a person who talks about something whether or not you’re interested in it and whether or not they believe you’re interested in it.”

He also has a take on the question of whether a wine should be considered a work of art. “You can make a distinction between an aesthetic object and an art object, which is anything appreciated aesthetically, like landscape, or people. Wine is clearly an aesthetic object, but there’s no reason to think it is an art object.”

If you’re still not convinced that the philosophy of wine is a bona fide subject, Crane understands your worries. “The sceptical question which has been raised with me about the philosophy of wine is that of course there are enormous differences between wine and other pleasures and other great things, but what lessons are there of philosophical interest from it which couldn’t be gained from something else.? Are there any philosophical issues wine raises that coffee or beer doesn’t?”

The short answer is that there aren’t. In that respect, the philosophy of wine is not a sub-field of philosophy of the same kind as aesthetics, metaphysics or ethics. But at the same time, and as I think our conversation demonstrated, wine is an unusually rich source of data for philosophical reflections on subjects like consciousness and aesthetic experience. In that sense, wine is not just any old example.

If you’re convinced and you want to get tasting, Smith has some practical as well as philosophical advice. “I’d say you should not buy a £200 wine if you cannot discriminate in the class of wines between £25 and £200. You should buy the best wine in the class within which you can discriminate.”

But be careful: once you get started you might find that class rising quite steeply.

“Getting into wine financially ruins you,” says Crane, embracing his fate with another sip.

Questions of Taste: the philosophy of wine, edited by Barry C Smith, is published by Signal Books

The wonders of Scotland

John Haldane examines the remarkable intellectual impact of the Scottish enlightenment

David Hume

David Hume

What is the legacy of the Scottish enlightenment? To answer that, I think one first needs to ask “the legacy for whom?” and also to get clear about the scope of that enlightenment in its own day, and its influence on following generations of Scots thinkers.

There is a tendency for present day philosophers to view the Scottish enlightenment though their understanding of the ideas of Hume. Seen in that way it represents the displacement of traditional metaphysical and theological systems with a form of sceptical naturalism. Gone were the assumptions of the rational structure of reality, its divine origin and providential governance; gone the idea that world and mind are made for one another; gone the assumption that ethics is a matter of conformity with principles of natural law, or with the deliverances of God-informed conscience. In their places were put elements of naturalistic, empiricist humanism, central to which is the idea that in so far as philosophy has anything to say about human nature and conduct it is in the form of a description of human habits of thought, feeling and action.

Certainly these are recognisably Humean themes, and Hume was perhaps the greatest thinker of the Scottish enlightenment, but the cultural movement to which he belonged was much larger and more varied. For one thing it was not restricted to philosophy even in an extended sense of the term that might embrace economic theory and law. It involved fundamental and applied sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, geology and geography; and it also involved theology, not as something to be rejected but as a subject to be reworked. Beyond Hume, the familiar names are those of Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart; and less familiar are those of Anderson, Beattie, Black, Campbell, Ferguson, Hutton, Kames, Millar, Monboddo, Steuart and Wallace.

For a country that was then the poorest in western Europe it is amazing that in the second half of the eighteenth century Scotland produced so many great figures. Part of the explanation of how that was possible lies in the fact that notwithstanding its poverty Scotland contained the third, fourth, fifth and sixth oldest universities in the English-speaking world: St Andrews (1411), Glasgow (1451), Aberdeen (1495) and Edinburgh (1582).

Within the human sphere, the main area of interest was personal and social values and principles, and their history and development; the core idea was that these are able to be reasoned about with a view to the common good. That interest and idea continued to inform Scottish thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though under the influence of German philosophical idealism and Christian socialism it took a more communitarian and even collectivist turn.

The legacy of the Scottish enlightenment in the world of ideas consists in an interest in Hume’s philosophical naturalism, in Smith’s reconciliation of personal interest and social utility; and in Reid’s defence of common sense principles deployed in the service of realism. But here there is disagreement about the meaning and value of these projects. For some, Hume is to be seen as a subversive radical, for others as a conservative quietist. To some Smith is a free-market liberal; to others he is a social welfarist. For some Reid is an uncompromising direct realist; for others he is a kind of Kantian idealist. Added to these interpretative differences are ones of attitude: either celebrating or criticising one or another figure as they are seen in one or another guise.

While the interest of contemporary philosophers in these figures, and their concern to provide analytical and evaluative verdicts on their philosophies, are significant for assessing the enduring influence of the Scottish enlightenment, they are only one aspect of its legacy. More extensive is its influence on societies and on their reflective discourses. It is now commonplace to observe that the Scottish enlightenment had an effect on the political and educational institutions of North America, including the Constitution of the United States and early colleges such as Princeton. Less well known is its influence on reforming movements in continental Europe, particularly in France and Spain. Today world economists invoke the name of Smith in support of proposed policies, and commentators cite Hume as having established the distinction between facts and values.

Within Scotland itself the legacy of the national enlightenment is complex, being mediated by various other religious and social movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even so it is possible to discern several distinctive ideas. First, there is the emphasis on education as something that should be available to all without compromising intellectual standards. This carries over into the universities, which, particularly in Glasgow and to a lesser degree in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, are animated by notions of intellectual democracy. Second, there is the idea of society as something real over and above the sum of its members. Though often associated with socialism, this has also been a theme of paternalistic Scottish conservatism, and of rural Scottish liberalism. Third is the ideal of society as a community, with its implication that social goods arise within and are best protected by relatively small political units that are united by common history and shared values. Aspects of this may be found in Hume, Smith and Ferguson, and they are central to twentieth century social philosophers such as John MacMurray. Alasdair MacIntyre and Neil MacCormick.

This leads to the thought that in looking for the legacy of the Scottish enlightenment within Scotland one should attend to the nationalist movement which, as well as proclaiming a general political philosophy of communitarianism, has focussed its policy priorities on the provision of free university education, free medical prescriptions, free care for the elderly, and the replacement of council tax with local income tax. Whatever one thinks of these policies, they represent a certain unified vision of the goods of knowledge and of the value of society that were certainly dominant themes of the Scottish enlightenment. Arguably, then, its main legacy in Scotland is less in the field of speculative than in that of practical philosophy, an outcome with which. I suspect, Hume, Smith and Reid would have been quite content.

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Ethics Philosophy and Public Affairs in the University of St Andrews and author Seeking Meaning and Making Sense (Imprint Academic)

Review: Annihilation by Christopher Belshaw

Douglas Murphy explores the meaning of death

Annihilation: The Sense and Significance of Death
by Christopher Belshaw
(UK: Acumen; US: McGill-Queen’s University Press)

death200As the saying goes, death is one of only two certainties in life. Everything that has ever lived has died; you, I, and everybody we have ever known will one day die. For something that is all around us, we spend very little of our time thinking about death. In fact, we seem to spend an awful lot of our time trying not to think about it. But are we even sure just what, exactly, “death” is? Does death have meaning? And can philosophy help us try to understand death? Christopher Belshaw’s Annihilation sets out to address these questions.

This is not a study of the cultures surrounding death, or of the ugly process of dying, but a hearty jaunt through recent ethical thought, asking only a few simple questions: “What is death?”, “Is it bad that we die?”, “How bad is death?” Belshaw frames these questions with thoroughness, consistency and clarity, shedding light on other thinkers such as Derek Parfit, and the book is at its best and most informative when it is weighing up the various positions on its subject matter. Although the book is theoretical rather than immediately practical, there is much in it that can be applied to genuine ethical situations, especially medical and legal problems.

Before we can hope to think ethically about death, we must first try to make sure that we know what death itself is. Belshaw sets out his definition clearly, and it governs the book as a whole; for him, death is “the irreversible breakdown of, or loss of function in, the organism as a whole.” He opposes this view to, on the one hand, those who see death primarily in terms of the brain, and, on the other hand, those who hold that the disappearance of personality is commensurate with death. In this way, he avoids both a vulgar materialism of mere flesh, and a dualist view of the subject that would involve any kind of mind-body opposition. The sacrifice is that he has to give up an exhaustive account of death, leaving ambiguities remaining: how indivisible is an organism? Can we ever say with certainty that a death event is irreversible? How much physical and mental change can a human go through before their identity changes also?

To grapple with, if not answer, these questions the book deals with an impressive array of scenarios, including brains in jars, teleporting, transplants, posthumous betrayal and the obligatory whom-do-I-rescue? dilemma, and Belshaw elucidates these examples with a witty and conversational style. While mostly useful, the hypothetical future scenarios occasionally become too reductive to be informative, for example when Belshaw compares lives in terms of points scored for a good year, and decides that for some poor soul “it is evident that dying early has cost him 200 points.” For a reader seeking to deepen their understanding of human death, this approach is a concept of subjectivity that is far too simplistic to be useful.

The majority of the book deals with the “badness” of death: whether or not death can really be said to “harm” us, against the Epicurean position, whereby death, as non-existence, cannot be said to be in any way harmful to the person who has died, Belshaw suggests that death is harmful to us if it deprives us of future good in our lives. He justifies this by arguing that we need not be aware of a harmful event to be harmed by it, and that the lack of future good, even if we have returned to the void, is something that causes us harm. But this seems to necessitate a third angle to his hybrid-subject: our existence for the other. If there is harm, but the harmed no longer exist, there must be an observer to register this harm. Belshaw is reluctant to expand upon this, as it would necessitate a more cultural approach.

Overall the book is very enjoyable; Belshaw writes in a clear, informative and humorous manner, providing a worthwhile summary of a variety of positions on death, but at times his unwillingness to commit to strong positions makes for a somewhat timid read. Too often, when unable to decide between two competing arguments, he concludes that we are “as close as one can expect to get” to an answer, before swiftly moving on. This cautiousness means that the book is not as much of an outlandish read as David Benatar’s recent Better Never to Have Been, a bombastically deadpan argument that all life is invariably harmful and should never be begun in the first place. But also, with its narrow focus, Annihilation leaves much unsaid. A truly comprehensive study of the significance of death would have to deal with collective questions of extinction, political power over life, and what it might actually mean to be “alive” in the first place.

Douglas Murphy is writing his first book, The Architecture of Failure (Zero Books)

Peter Vardy video interview

Peter Vardy is the author of numerous books on the philosophy of religion, especially popular with high school students and undergraduates. In this interview – recorded in 2001 and shown here for the first time – Vardy talks about what he thinks the most pressing issues in the philosophy of religion are today. Interview by Julian Baggini. Filming and editing by Jeremy Stangroom.