UK based teachers of philosophy A Level or IB may be interested in a series of one-day student conferences at which tpm editor Julian Baggini will be speaking in February and March. More details here.
Monthly Archives: November 2009
In his latest Philosophy Monthly, tpm editor Julian Baggini is talking to the playwright, novelist, screenwriter and sometime philosopher, Michael Frayn, and John Armstrong, philosopher-in-residence at Melbourne Business School and the author of Civilisation: Remaking a Tarnished Ideal.
You can listen or download here, or download from
Julian Baggini meets the man who dropped a bomb on postmodernism“I hope your interest is not primarily in the whole stuff of about 10 years ago, because that’s so old hat.”
So speaks the physicist Alan Sokal, right at the start of our interview. The “stuff of 10 years ago” is the eponymous Sokal Affair, when he “dropped a bomb” on postmodern literary theory and social science by publishing a parody paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the journal Social Text. The paper was, as Sokal sees it, little more than “an annotated bibliography of very sloppy science and philosophy of science”, but it opened up a massive debate about the misuses of science and the alleged absurdity of what Sokal calls the “sloppy relativism” infecting academia.
“It’s inevitable that my obituary will lead with that, no matter what I do, even in the unlikely event that I get a Nobel prize,” says Sokal. However, his dismissal of the affair as “old hat” is somewhat undermined by the publication of his new book, Beyond the Hoax, which includes an annotated version of the hoax paper, as well as updated versions of two chapters previously published in Intellectual Impostures, the book he wrote with Jean Bricmont in the aftermath of the affair (which also republished the parody). Although it does indeed go beyond the hoax, it hardly leaves it behind.
Sokal is right, however, that we’re not talking simply to go over old ground. We covered the hoax in some detail in a 1998 interview for this magazine. Our main interest, as we sipped tea in a café near his temporary office at University College London, was in the wider impact of philosophy on his life.
Sokal’s first real brush with the subject came at university, when, as a physics major, he took a few philosophy courses he can barely remember. “There was one with Bernard Williams – I don’t remember what the course was called, but I think it was in that course that I wrote a paper on the ontological proof of the existence of God, which of course is fallacious and people have written thousands of articles trying to explain exactly why it’s fallacious. I did something with quantified modal logic – I can’t even remember what I did.”
Although that was it with formal philosophy until the Social Text affair, Sokal did have a “philosophically-oriented approach to physics,” which contrasted with the “very pragmatic anti-philosophical point of view” of many of his colleagues, of which “the extreme version is ‘shut up and calculate’: physics is about predicting, experiment and that’s all. I was always opposed to that point of view. It seems to me that physics is about trying to understand the world, and experiments are tools for checking whether your theories about the world are possibly right but they’re not an end in themselves. So I always took an attitude towards physics where I was interested in the fundamental conceptual questions, closer to Einstein’s approach than Feynman’s.
“You can even see this shift in the history of physics a little bit, from the generation of Einstein and Bohr and Heisenberg, who spent a lot of time arguing about fundamental conceptual questions, primarily about quantum mechanics; to the generation after, of Feynman and his contemporaries, who said we can argue about conceptual things until hell freezes over, but there are so many new things to explore in elementary particles, in quantum chemistry, let’s do that. That also coincided with a geographical shift from European dominance to American dominance.
“I don’t criticise the newer generation. They were right that there were so many interesting things to learn and maybe the philosophical discussion had stalled. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the conceptual questions are also fundamental. For example, what does quantum mechanics actually mean? I’ve been using quantum mechanics for about 35 years, almost three-quarters of my life, and the more I study it the less I understand it. So I can understand why a whole generation of physicists threw their hands up in despair and said ‘let’s just calculate’, but that’s not to me a satisfactory final answer.”
Many people certainly do have a sense that, if you do physics, you can’t avoid philosophy. But different conclusions are drawn from this. Some dismiss the philosophers, saying it’s the physicists who are the ones really doing the philosophy; while others complain that the problem with physicists is that they’re doing philosophy, but they’re not equipped to do it. How does Sokal see the distinction between his discipline and philosophy?
“I don’t know how you draw the line between clarifying the conceptual foundations of a particular branch of physics and doing philosophy of that particular branch of physics. I’m not sure that there’s really much difference. It can be done by physicists with or without formal training in philosophy, and it can be done by philosophers usually with formal training in physics. The philosophers of physics who I think are the best, the ones I respect the most, very frequently were at the very least physics undergraduates and in some cases got PhDs in physics before switching to philosophy, people like David Albert.
“So going back to your question, I think there’s some truth to the stereotypes on both sides. Physicists, when they do philosophy, often do it badly. They’re often confused about the conceptual foundations of their own physics, because sometimes you can compute and get the right results even if you don’t understand conceptually very well what you’re doing. That’s a criticism that not only philosophers but also mathematicians make of physics. Because I’m half a mathematician I respect that criticism too. So it’s absolutely true that physicists often make a botch of the conceptual foundations of physics, especially when it comes to quantum mechanics, because quantum mechanics is simply much harder than any other physics we know. Everybody makes a botch of it because we don’t really know what’s going on.
“I think there is also something in physicists’ complaints about philosophers that often what they do is so sterile that it’s of virtually no relevance to any working scientist, even at the level of conceptually clarifying important things in their fields.”
Critics of philosophy of science, however, often base their hostility on an assumption of what it should be doing. To simplify somewhat, there are two different ways of seeing it. One is that it has nothing to do with the practice of science whatsoever, it’s just we ask ourselves what this thing called science is, simply because we want to understand it. The other is that it’s there at least partly to help clarify the scientific method in order to get better science. Which view does Sokal take?
“I think both are true in different instances. There are some cases where the second is definitely true, that is to say when scientists are generally confused about something, conceptual clarification can be useful. Whether it comes from someone with a degree in philosophy, physics or biology doesn’t matter.
“Conceptual clarification can be useful for pushing science ahead, even in the narrow instrumental sense: we may urgently need conceptual clarification if we are to make progress in quantum gravity. I don’t know, first of all because I’m not a specialist in that field, and secondly because no-one can predict the future.
“Certainly Einstein spent a lot of time doing conceptual clarification in his own mind, leading him to general relativity and special relativity, and that played a crucial role. You can call that philosophy or you can call it deep thinking about physics. Quantum mechanics was born mostly without that kind of conceptual clarification, so it shows that you can get instrumental physics without clarifying the concepts – it can go both ways.
“But going back to the other side, that philosophy is just good for itself and is not necessarily intended to help working scientists, you know the famous quote from Feynman which says ‘philosophy of science is about as useful for scientists as ornithology is for birds.’ Most people would see that as denigration of philosophy of science, but I don’t see it that way at all. Ornithology is not intended to be useful for birds. In principle ornithologists might, by studying the physics of how birds fly, come up with some suggestions to birds about how they could fly more efficiently, except that natural selection has probably beaten them to it anyway. In the same way, philosophy of science could come up with suggestions for working scientists, but that’s not necessarily its major goal. I like that Feynman quote precisely because it’s not, in my view, pejorative towards philosophers of science. It’s saying that the philosophy of science is different. It clarifies what scientists do whether or not it helps scientists.”
Sokal is very positive about philosophy’s potential to help physics with its conceptual clarification in principle, but in practice, there is a long pause when I ask him if he can give any examples of when this has actually happened.
“Lucien Hardy? I think he’s in a philosophy department.” Actually, I later find out he isn’t. He’s at the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics at Waterloo, Ontario. Sokal eventually concedes that “The major contributions have been made by physicists: Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen, Bohr, Boehm, Bell…”
I find this issue particularly interesting because, after the Social Text affair, most analytically-minded philosophers embraced Sokal as an ally. “The reaction from philosophers, at least in the English-speaking world, was generally supportive,” he says. “Most philosophers in the English-speaking world don’t go for relativism in general and certainly don’t go for the extreme, sloppy versions of it that you get from post-modernist oriented literary critics. Philosophers have been critical of that sort of sloppy philosophy for a long time. There was the famous debate in the New York Review of Books between John Searle and Jacques Derrida. So most philosophers were genuinely supportive.”
But I wonder if they should be. Just as his kind words about what philosophers of science could contribute to physics masks the fact that, actually, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly they have contributed, so the hoax and its aftermath in a sense diminishes philosophy by showing that you don’t need to be an experienced professor with a detailed knowledge of the subject to wade in and settle some pretty big philosophical scores.
“I should make clear that I don’t think my parody article settles anything,” says Sokal. “It doesn’t by itself prove much – that one journal was sloppy. So it wasn’t the parody itself that proved it, it was the things that I and other people wrote afterward which I believe showed the sloppiness of the philosophy that a lot of postmodernist literary theory types were writing. But again, I wasn’t the first person to make those criticisms. It was only after the fact that I went back into the literature and found philosophers had made many of these criticisms long before me. All I did in a certain sense was to find a better public relations method than they did.
“So in a certain sense any relatively smart person, whether they’re a philosopher, a physicist or a literary critic themselves could have figured that out.”
Isn’t it also the case that when Sokal talks about general philosophy of science (as opposed to the specific philosophy of physics) he’s also pretty deflationary about what he thinks it can achieve? For instance, doesn’t he think both that philosophers have failed to codify the scientific method and that they will probably continue to fail to do so; and that, in fact, what one can sensibly say about it is pretty general?
“There have been various different attempts [to codify the scientific method], none of which have been terribly successful. They’ve all pointed to some correct understanding of what science does, but no one has succeeded in coming up with a even plausible codification of what it is that scientists do, and philosophers of science are the first to admit it. So I guess you’re right that I’m sceptical that there can ever be a complete over-arching theory simply because science is about rationality; rationality is always adaptation to unforeseen circumstances – how can you possibly codify that?
“But that doesn’t mean philosophy of science is useless, because all of these attempts that have failed as final codifications of scientific method nevertheless contributed something. For example I hope to write an article about Nick Maxwell’s approach. I think he’s put his finger on something very important too, which, again, is not the end of the story but adds something. So I don’t think philosophy of science is a failure.
“Maybe philosophers of science, especially in the early twentieth century, were too optimistic about what they could do. They saw what Russell and Whitehead had done for axiomatising mathematics – which wasn’t completely successful either, but that’s a different story. In some sense there was progress in understanding the foundations of mathematics, and I think they aspired to do the same thing for science in general. Maybe they underestimated how much more complicated empirical science is compared to pure mathematics.”
In his new book, Sokal continues to transgress the boundaries of academic disciplines by wading into the public God debate with a long chapter which is effectively a review of two very different books that have fuelled it, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Michael Lerner’s Spirit Matters. In it, Sokal pitches his tent very firmly in the Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins camp. What does he make of the criticism that such strident atheism alienates more than it persuades?
“I’m not trying to be strategic. I’m not a politician. I’m a physicist, an academic, and, if you want, an amateur philosopher. I’m trying to say what I think is true as clearly and unemotionally as I can, and leave it to people to judge if my arguments are right or wrong. I don’t think my tone is strident.
“People sometimes unjustly accuse Harris and Dawkins at least of being strident when in fact all they’re doing is refusing our culture’s double standard for religion. The double standard is you can say more or less anything you want about Tories or Labour, about Republicans or Democrats; about capitalists or socialists; but you can’t say anything even remotely critical about a religion. Now why not? If you read Harris’s book or Dawkins’s book – certainly if you read what I’ve written – you don’t find anything half-way as harsh about religion as you read everyday in the paper about politics.”
When thinking about why Sokal gets involved with these debates, it’s important to remember his political motivations. Sokal is a man of the left who once spent a few summers teaching maths at the National University of Nicaragua during the Sandinistas’ rule. Underlying his work outside of physics is a strong conviction that it is a disaster for the left to abandon a commitment to reason. In his book, he cites one such example of someone who wanted to claim that science is not universal, but varies according to how the individual is situated in the world: “A German can look at and understand Nature only according to his racial character.”
“This of course is a quotation from Ernst Krieck, a notorious Nazi ideologue, who was rector of the University of Heidelberg in 1937-38. I was flabbergasted – well maybe not flabbergasted – when I came across it. This doesn’t show that postmodernists are Nazis or anything. What it shows is a kind of uncanny overlap of ideas between, on the one hand, left-wing postmodernists, and the other hand, extreme right wing nationalists, whether they’re German or Hindu nationalists.”
Whether he’s right or wrong, this is why the debate that Sokal started matters, and is why, intellectual impostor or not, philosophers too should pay attention to him.
Julian Baggini is editor of tpm
Mind the gapUntil recently, consciousness was something of a taboo subject for scientists, most of whom seemed happy to leave such esoteric studies to philosophers and psychoanalysts. It is almost universally agreed that consciousness arises from the activity of the brain, and yet we are still waiting for a simple, satisfactory, brain-centred explanation of consciousness. An unhappy state of affairs, but one that may not be around for much longer, for scientists have finally woken from their slumber: armed with a flood of new discoveries from the neurosciences, they have been able to provide several competing models of consciousness.
One of these models, the Global Workspace Model, has recently gained support from a study by Raphael Gaillard and his colleagues in Paris, who showed that conscious visual information is rapidly and widely distributed across the brain, provoking the synchronised brain activity that is taken by the model to be the hallmark of consciousness.
The Global Workspace Model was first proposed by the cognitive scientist Bernard Baars in the late 1980s and proposes that at any given time, many modular cerebral networks are active in parallel, and process information in an unconscious manner. Regarding incoming visual information, for example, it becomes conscious if and only if the following three conditions are met:
Condition 1: information must be explicitly represented by the neuronal firing of perceptual networks located in the primary visual cortex at the rear of the brain.
Condition 2: this neuronal representation must reach a minimal threshold of duration and intensity in order to bring in a second stage of processing, distributed across the brain’s cortex, and especially involving the prefrontal cortex, which is believed to be a major centre for associating multiple kinds of information.
Condition 3: through joint bottom-up propagation (condition 1) and top-down attentional amplification (condition 2), the ensuing brain-scale neural assembly must “ignite” into a self-sustained reverberant state of coherent activity that involves many neurons distributed throughout the brain.
Why would this ignited state correspond to a conscious state? Gaillard et al. argue that the key idea behind the workspace model is that because of its massive interconnectivity, the active coherent assembly of workspace neurons can distribute its contents to a great variety of other brain processors, thus making this information globally available. The global workspace model postulates that this global availability of information is what we subjectively experience as a conscious state.
Just how did Gaillard and his colleagues set about measuring the neural signature of the conscious perception of a visual stimulus? Using patients with medically intractable epilepsy who, in preparation for surgery, had multiple shallow recording electrodes implanted within their cerebral cortices to locate seizure activity, they were able to directly record the patients’ neural activity as it happened. According to the scientists, this “unique opportunity” afforded greater spatial and temporal resolution than noninvasive methods used previously to probe the neural basis of consciousness, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, which can only scan the brain about once every two seconds. They compared neural activity concomitant with conscious and non-conscious processing of words by using a visual masking procedure that allowed them to manipulate the conscious visibility of briefly masked words.
The scientists showed the subjects a computer screen upon which they projected a set of hash marks (which acts as the mask) for 400milliseconds (ms), then a word for 29ms, and then either a blank screen or a set of ampersands (another mask) for 71ms. The entire sequence thus took only half a second, but in both cases the word was registered at the earliest stages of visual processing, as shown by electrical activity in the primary visual cortex, thus meeting the first condition of the global workspace model.
When the subjects were exposed to a word followed by a second mask, they could only guess at the nature of the word they saw. But when subjects were exposed to a word and the second mask was absent, the word was consciously reportable and readable, so the scientists could compare masked (non-conscious) perception and unmasked (conscious) perception of briefly flashed words.
Non-conscious perception of words elicited short-lasting activity across multiple cortical areas, including parietal and visual areas. In sharp contrast, only consciously perceived words were accompanied by long-lasting effects (>200 ms) across a great variety of cortical sites, with a special involvement of the prefrontal lobes. This sustained pattern of neural activity was characterised by a specific increase of coherence between distant areas, suggesting conscious perception is broadcasted widely across the cortex.
Gaillard and his colleagues do acknowledge one shortcoming with their research, which is that “whenever a subject is conscious, he is necessarily conscious of a given mental content.” Consciousness is “intentional” in form (it is “about” a certain content), and the scientists admit it may be illusory to look for a “pure” form of consciousness independent of its particular contents and of the tasks that initiate it.
When applied to neuroscientific experiments, this implies that when imaging a brain having some conscious experience, one will necessarily observe activations corresponding to a specific conscious content. Can one really extrapolate from this to make generalisations about consciousness as a whole? Gaillard et al. believe that further experiments with other kinds of stimuli are clearly necessary, as they will reveal which late-stage, widespread brain events are common to all conscious processing, and which are specific to the experiment at hand.
Another shortcoming is perhaps more telling. Gaillard’s research joins a growing body of scientific evidence over the last few decades (from such techniques as electroencephalography, positron emission topography, and functional magnetic resonance imaging) that have helped to show how observable brain activity correlates with our inner feelings of blueness, sadness, pleasure, pain, and all the other subjective qualities that make up our conscious awareness.
But these neural correlates of consciousness, as they are known, do nothing to explain just how it is that a particular group of neurons brings about our feeling of blueness. They do nothing to close what philosophers term the explanatory gap, as Ned Block and Robert Stalnaker explain:
“Suppose that consciousness is identical to a property of the brain – say activity in the pyramidal cells of layer 5 of the cortex involving reverberatory circuits from cortical layer 6 to the thalamus and back to layers 4 and 6 – as Crick and Koch have suggested for visual consciousness. Still, that identity itself calls out for explanation!”
For all its sophistication and advancement upon earlier research, in the end the research of Galliard and his colleagues does nothing to close the explanatory gap between the scientific explanation of a mental content and the actual experiencing of the content itself.
As the philosopher Uriah Kriegel has put it “There is a persistent feeling that scientific theories of consciousness do not do much to explain phenomenal consciousness. Moreover, there is a widespread sense that there is something principled about the way in which they fail to do so.”
But it is to this phenomenal side of consciousness that scientists must attend if they are to provide a complete explanation of consciousness. Galliard and his colleagues have undoubtedly taken us a further step along the path to understanding consciousness, but there is clearly still a long way to go.
“Converging Intracranial Markers of Conscious Access” by Gaillard R, Dehaene S, Adam C, Clémenceau S, Hasboun D, et al. PLoS Biology Vol. 7, No. 3, 2009.
“Exploring the ‘Global Workspace’ of Consciousness” by Richard Robinson PLoS Biology Vol. 7, No. 3, 2009.
“Conceptual Analysis, Dualism, and the Explanatory Gap” by Ned Block and Robert Stalnaker, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 108, No. 1, January 1999.
Mathew Iredale’s Sci-Phi column appears every issue in tpm
How broad can a World Congress of Philosophy get before it loses its focus?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