Archives for posts with tag: Philosophers

So last night’s pub philosophy circle was one of those classic subjects: art. Tim Cross led the discussion which was lively if full of assertions and opinions but lacking in philosophy. Tim’s talk was great, but our audience let him down, I feel. What it did demonstrate is that philosophy of art remains an area of much debate and it fuels a lot of entrenched opinion.

My feelings on the subject were pretty agnostic going in. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy art. In particularly photojournalism and photo-realist painting, interestingly, both schools of which are sometimes touted as not art at all. My view is that good photo-realism adds something to mere representation that is almost intangible – and it is that, in fact, which is the slippery essence of what ‘art’ is.

But any debate on art quickly falls into rather crass examples of what one likes or dislikes as if that explains what art is or isn’t. A slightly deeper debate will often get to the categories of what makes art ‘art’ but these too are often distracting traps of little consequence. Keen to play along, however, and at a push I came up with a simple triad of core qualities which we might use to define ‘art’. I am not yet certain how many of these qualities need to be in place to qualify, at least one, probably two but sometimes all three, but I’m absolutely happy with that ambiguity, just as what is/isn’t art can be slippery and open to debate.

Here it is; I’ve gone with the 3 c’s purely to keep it simple.


All art has to engage at least the creator but ideally both the creator and the viewer. It is like a human without a self – it needs reflection. To regard it is to engage in it but if a piece of art fails to communicate with you then it probably isn’t art but rather it is just an object. To you. So, that is not to say that absolutely all viewers need to be able to comprehend it: there’s no magic number in consensus, but some general acquiescence to the fact there is something more than an object will do. In fact, it is probably easier to consider a piece of art which doesn’t communicate with you in some way to define this difference between object and item imbued with meaning in some way. Which is different, of course, to ‘not liking’ what’s being communicated – it is still communicating with you.

It is easy to regard art as beautiful (the art communicates beauty to you) but there is also other means of communication at play here: the beguiling (Mona Lisa) or the horror (Bacon or Guernica, for example) to name but two other expressions.

The most obvious quality. And then there’s ‘found’ objects which are given a context and thus communicate as more than mere objects. So, no, not everything needs to be made from scratch to qualify as craft; the craft might be the ability to capture something already in existence, which brings us nicely to…

The choice of subject, place and materials all bring the craft into being.

The combination of all these three (and in some cases perhaps, only two of these), and by varying degrees and in different forms is what makes art.

Arising out of these are other factors which might explain why some things become art or in some cases ‘great’ art after a period of time. Things like context, subject and whether the art is novel or innovative. Sometimes, however, something may be crafted (like a steam engine) only to become art over time as context changes (scarcity or changes in train design now reveals the craft or art of the steam train). You might disagree with the example there, but the same process might explain the increasing regard for some art over time, or some novels.

The creation of art has the consequence that it does, however, become a commodity. Questions of who buys art, why and at what value, is a separate debate to this, and it is a question rather of what do we mean by the ‘value’ of art, normally in a commercial sense, but sometimes in a critical sense.

Disappointingly, I find debate around art tends to miss what we might call the people’s arts. Gardening, cooking, or more thanks to modernity maths and coding might be considered an art. We debated whether the London Underground map is art. I said yes. Others said it was merely good design. I said it is also good design, but it is art. It has gone beyond design, as evidenced by people being compelled to buy and hang prints of it, a pursuit disconnected with its original purpose.

Finally, I wanted to consider the question ‘why is the question ‘what is art’ important to us?’

It is my opinion that all shared human endeavours and experiences that we hold in common will eternally be important questions and considerations for man. Probably because it is one of the characteristics which make man human.

Art is like all universal experiences – invaluably human.

I was talking about last night’s Tintern Philosophy Circle pub meet and a talk by Tim Cross ‘Art – some philosophical questions’. Next month (each 3rd Tuesday, 7.30pm) is Prof. John Clarke on ‘Sartre: on authenticity & sincerity’ and December has a guest speaker on ‘Religion & Science’.

We started by looking at architecture, noting that postmodernism is two fingers to the rigid, utilitarian elegance of modernist forms and structures.

Philosophically, it is a fashionable utopia of no utopias. It labels a stylistic zeitgeist of a certain time, now past. The V&A call the era that “defies definition; an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical, postmodernism was a visually thrilling multifaceted style that ranged from the colourful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious.” [1]

It is an amorphous, wry dare to accept so many viewpoints and meanings as to be elusive and virtually meaningless. In its plurality of truths it resists a consensual truth upon which we can build knowledge, even if it requires a consensus to achieve its own existence.

Despite this ambiguous fluidity, it is remarkably linear in its succession of its predecessor. But this presents its first downfall. Where, for example, does one place the architecture of Gaudi? Was he a modernist, or a pre-Postmodernist? I don’t think we can just drop him into art nouveau on its own. Then compare to Hundtwerwasser’s building – is that postmodernism, or eco-modernism? Or new-wave nouveau?

And, at last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle, it struck me that its rise and fall is shadowed by the rise and fall of Western affluence.

Professor John Clarke, used the catalogue for the recent V&A exhibition on the art and style of Postmodernism as his starting point. Accordingly, postmodernism starts on 15th March 1972 with the destruction of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

This recalled Dominic Sandbrooks’ recent BBC2 series ‘The 1970s’ which touted a similar line and to some degree therefore corroborates the received wisdom that the decade of my childhood saw off the drab, utilitarian age of Modernism.

But this denies the purpose of many of those then-dream homes in the sky estates. Post-war Britain needed mass housing and the working class slums of the pre-war years failed to provide a model a modern Britain needed. As Le Corbusier says ‘The house is a machine for living…’ [2] In the same way you could say the NHS is a modernist idea: a modern state response to a problem facing society at large. And it was the right solution. It represented a modern yet utilitarian approach to healthcare, free at the point of need, invested in by the state – through National Insurance – to deliver a modern service for the modern age.

But postmodernism is a purely middle-class pre-occupation of the well-off and, as Prof. Clarke put it – it is often humorous and ‘superficial’. It cannot see the value in modernist expressions of utility, grace in form.

I can’t remember who it was (Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright perhaps) but a famous modern-era architect once suggested that they’ll never better the symmetry of the perfect utilitarian home: the snail’s shell.

For their part, a postmodernist would paint a ‘for rent’ sign on the snail. A witty aside. Perhaps even some well-placed cynicism of the commodity age. An expression. All these are well and good. But it pales compared to the natural symmetry of the snail ‘s home, which modernist strived to provide for fellow man.

So, what sounds like a permissive, liberal tendency comes across as a petulant, noisy show-off screaming for attention while the rest of us just get on with some work, try to make ends meet.

Even 9/11 – touted as the end of Postmodernism – is a uniquely Western perspective. Something dreadful has happened to us in the West so we arrogantly reassess our own preoccupation with the ‘designer decade’. And yet what was also missed by the postmodern story we heard last night, was that the year postmodernism begins (in  1972 with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project), the two towers of the World Trade Centre are also completed. Here was see a very modernist structure.

Politically the anti-globalisation movement that came to maturity in Seattle 1999 tried the same amorphous approach favoured by the postmodernists, as has Occupy. Only to realise that without a programme, a shared vision of what is necessary then the demands of its movement will be lost in the noise of its complexity and variety. That is why the movement relented and finally published exactly that last week.

To be able to reflect oneself, one needs form. One needs a boundary that differentiates itself from the multiplicity of background.

Postmodernism is supposed to be liberal and a form of anti-authoritarian expression. It rejects the grand narratives. But look for a moment at cornerstone postmodern artworks like Mendini ‘s ‘Destruction of Lassu chair’ (photograph 1974) and you see a shouty rejection of the past, which seems to me remarkably authoritarian. Burning chairs OK? What about burning books? And if it’s not destroying stuff, it’s taking the piss. Does that make Monty Python pre-Postmodernists? The Goons? When does Dada end and postmodernism begin, then?

No this kind of anarchism exists without co-operation. It is self-indulgent relativism where every view of the world is valid but without consensus and coherence, useless and often meaningless.

Drawing on the NHS parallel I made earlier – where do we find ourselves now? In the boom-years of the 1980s, I imagine that private healthcare rocketed. People could afford to reject the state for something ‘better’. Conservative capitalism now reigns supreme. It even wants a slice of the state pie (and the Tories are giving it to them starting with the hideous Health & Social Welfare Reform Bill passed a couple of months ago).

To survive the post Postmodern age, conservative capitalism create an age of austerity. It must re-embrace the grand narratives of ‘isms. Conservatism.  Be it liberal conservatism or Christian conservatism. Professor Salvoj Zizek, meanwhile heralds the return of proper socialism – communism. But all these must seek out their place in the return of fundamentalisms.




 [1] as at 16/5/12

[2] Vers une architecture, 1923

My lime and sea salt dark chocolate bar tasted more like mint. And with all its packaging and air miles, like guilt.

Last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle was lead with a talk by Prof. Herbert Giradet entitled ‘Eco-Philosophy – new parameters for thought and action’.

Giradet is well qualified on his subject. He’s a UN Global 500 award-winner for outstanding environmental achievement; a documentary filmmaker specialising in ecological and ethno-environmental concerns; has written books on these topics and acts as an international consultant on the issues; and finally he’s both a visiting professor of the University of the West of England and chair of the Schumacher Society.

In his talk he was careful not to present an argument, but rather he shared the evolution of environmental thinking as charted by the simultaneous destruction of it, which happens to run parallel with man’s spread across the globe and incessant rise in population.

But statements of even agreeable opinion can be received somewhat disappointingly for a pub-philosophy audience, even if his presentation was no less alarming and interesting because of it.

Nonetheless some good observations shone through. Man is unique in nature as the only bio-technological being. Nature creates no waste. Tourism means alienation from nature even if it means appreciation.

The case for re-habitation was also covered – something of a local touch-point with wild boar having been reintroduced into my local area (the  Forest of Dean) but with mixed opinion flying around in the local rags. For my part it made sense that anything that, as Herbie phrased it,  ‘reinstates the natural un-interfered environment’ is a logical position, but how far do we push that position? All the way until our eco-fundamentalism becomes dangerous? Let’s say it is about the reintroduction of wolves (which I recall is happening in parts of France), and there are a couple attacks on dogs or children, for example – is that too far? Or is that merely man’s penchant for species-ism as Peter Singer might have it? (Incidentally, Singer wasn’t even mentioned, which surprised me as I have heard many a commentator (from Einstein onwards) suggest that vegetarianism is one of the most effective means of mitigating some of the unravelling environmental disaster we’re idly witnessing).

Thoreau, however, was of course mentioned, but my memory has it that while his intentions and articulations were all well and good, even Henry David himself only spent two years at Walden. Out of this arose the disquieting thought: are we actually capable of the environmental breakthrough eco-philosophy strives for?

Then came the bread-and-butter of environmentalism: un-reflected use of natural resources, from the industrial age onwards. On the other side, ‘deep ecology’ proposed a world that sees the inherent worth of all livings things. But I didn’t have the gumption to ask our speaker whether he was a vegan or not.

Nonetheless, one quote Herbie cited that I particularly admired but hadn’t heard before was E. F. Schumacher’s…

“In our victory in the battle against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Later, and another pint of ale, and as it hadn’t come up already, I asked about the correlation of class to environmental activism. Our speaker acknowledged that much of the resistance to ecocide had come from the middle classes, but didn’t elaborate on the fact that, IMO, that’s probably a significant contributor as to why we’re unable to procure the necessary change.

Then there’s the issue of who chooses the watershed of what is acceptable exploitation of nature? Is it the philosophers, scientists and ecologists; or is it the people; perhaps it is our government, or is it nature herself? The evening was beginning to sound a bit pedagogical: the ill-informed and self-serving ignorants needed to be taught a lesson, for their own good. Some believed that nature would do this herself, as she has with famine some have contended, but others saw this as the need to reflect and reconnect.

Most of all, as a Marxist, I was underwhelmed that the greatest iceberg in this Titanic dilemma was clearly capitalism. But Herbie argued that actually the problem was merely a certain type of affluence; unfettered materialism. Again, who chooses the watershed?

Most disappointing was an interesting aside as we stumbled into George Monbiot’s recent acceptance of nuclear power.

Prof. Giradet told us that he used to be good friends with George (someone who I admire much, though I have yet to be convinced of his support for nuclear power), but that the nuclear stance was just ‘too much’.

‘Why?’ We asked.

‘Well, George likes the sound of his own voice.  And his position is so far from where it was two or three years ago.’


Suddenly we seemed to be missing a big chunk of wisdom. There was a massive hole in the room which we normally fill with philosophy. I left disappointed.

Perhaps Herbie is an eco-fundamentalist after all.

But this might just be one position that no matter how fundamental, is in our own interest.

Perhaps eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism.

After all, you can’t get more fundamental than the all-omnipotent and all-ecompossassing nature of  nature herself. She is in the stars, and our neurons, our hearts and amoebas.


{the next meeting of the Tintern Philosophy Circle is on 15th may at 7.30pm. We are a pub philosophy circle group, and all are welcome for only £2. Prof. John Clarke will be leading the next session with a talk entitled “Philosophy AFTER post-modernism”}

The War (for Children’s Minds) by Stephen Law

{a review}

Many might recall Marx’s declaration that – up to his age – philosophers had sought only to understand or as he put it ‘describe’ the world, but the point was ‘to change it.’ This might be the kernel of many an activist but it is a quality not exclusive to socialism.

Many times in The Clarion I have argued that the way to truly change society is through education. But, in our time, education is the realm primarily of children. And this is why it is there that the battleground for reason is being fought.

Today’s teenagers are the ‘war on terror’ generation. They are borne of a war built on an impossible, unachievable abstract waged by fundamentalist positions of varying zeal from both Muslim and Christian traditions, charged with a bonus shot of Zionism. As Richard Dawkins warned in ‘The God Delusion’, the minds of these children will form the foot-soldiers of tomorrows’ war. Be this, as in the case of Palestinian teenagers for example, martyrdom (as so tragically documented in James Miller’s film ‘Death in Gaza’, which saw him shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Force) or the attack on reason in US schools. There 96% of Americans claim to believe in God and their authorities have banned books such as 1984 as well as, in some cases, the barest mention of scientific evolution, favouring instead what is righteous and good as dictated by the Bible.

All this, however, is wrapped in a paradox: while faith and irrationality might be at the root of more conflict now than in any time previous in the last century and a half, there is equally a decline at least in the Christian tradition in church-going and the role of faith in state affairs. And some would have it, therefore, a decline in morality. But does that really follow?

Welcome then teenage drop-out come post-man turned philosophy professor, Stephen Law and his ‘The War for Children’s Minds’.

Although primarily concerned with the issue of faith, it is not faith alone which Law sees as the problem – unlike Dawkins’ or Hitchens works have been characterised (although they’re more about reason) – but authority. And it is this difference in perspective which explains why obvious rebukes of the idea that only religion is synonymous with moral conduct don’t appear until page 158 (with the citing of Fukuyama).

Law’s book ‘Makes a case for a particular kind of liberal moral education, an education rooted in philosophy, not authority.’ That is, getting pupils to think independently, building arguments through rational persuasion at most.

Blair’s New Labour were (in)famous in providing the blue print for the Tories to encourage more faith schooling in the UK. But Law builds a steady case against the notion that faith has a monopoly on moral education. Instead he offers a list of skills the student might cultivate as opposed instead of deference to a higher authority just because they say so or it is written (where, for example, it is ordained that homosexuals or women are not to be treated as equals). Law recommends students be taught to…

  • Reveal and question underlying assumptions,
  • Figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
  • Spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
  • Weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
  • Make a point clearly and concisely
  • Take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,
  • Argue without personalising a dispute,
  • Look at issues from the point of view of others, and
  • Question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings.

These are admirable qualities we could probably all use. And like most good advice, it is obvious and easy but I’d wager if we really adopted them well, we might just make the citizens of a shared world worthy of and for each other. And that’s probably why it hasn’t been universally applied, as it is not in the interests of the quiet authoritarians pulling the strings. Law reminds us that modern education only fulfils half its original intent – not to merely intellectualise – but also create good citizens. This just happens to be a view shared by those in favour of more authoritarian approaches; Law just disagrees on how that is achieved. And he offers a convincing case.

Law is concerned with many things, including the misunderstanding of Kant and the Enlightenment. He manages to stay just on the interesting side of argumentative pedantry but his simple, yet philosophical approach convincingly breaks down all the arguments of the authoritarians.

One problem is, of course, that authoritarians will never recognise themselves as such. Another is that they will misrepresent the liberal approach. But at Law points out ‘To say “You must judge what is right and wrong” is not to say “You must judge on a wholly shallow, materialistic, self-serving basis”.’ And yet this is the familiar argument against liberal education. Law refutes the claims that liberalism is relativism and encourages anarchy in the classroom. Indeed, how could that possibly deliver a structured approach to thinking? Law rejects authority which dictates what is to be believed, rather than instilling the means to think for oneself.

An oddity of many philosophic debates (as a visit to the Tintern Philosophy Circle (each 3rd Tuesday in the month at the Rose and Crown 7.30pm) will often testify), is that it isn’t long before the topic of Nazis turn up. And Law’s book is no exception. I guess this is because the Nazis are such a milestone in amoral conduct they off a good example of how supposedly rational beliefs become policies that can carry a whole country into mass extermination (and by, um, ‘authority’ no less).

Here Law rightly draws on Milgram’s 1950’s psychological tests which sought to understand how Nazi concentration camp guards qualified their actions by claiming ‘they were only following orders’ and – so Milgram thought – to prove that it could never happen in the USA. Instead, Milgram found that actually ‘65% of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to so by a white-coated authority-figure’. Law argues that it is only, as Kant says, through ‘the courage to use one’s own reason’ we might question such authority.

In fact, from a socialist perspective, our history is rich with those who questioned the established authority and challenged them in order to change the world for better. What is somewhat lacking here though is that which Marx set out – the means to change the status quo. At the risk of sounding like one endorses Pol Pot’s Year Zero: revolutionary action – in this case the means to ignite Enlightenment for modernity.

A liberal approach to character education won’t emerge of itself. It needs to be policy won by evidential argument, or if not grown organically by educationalists themselves. But I say what better place to start, while we wait for policy-makers to catch up, than in the home?

For his part, Law suggests some training for specialised teachers. After building such a convincing case, this solution seems rather lightweight.

In his defence, however, Law does cite cases where philosophy in schools has not only drastically improved critical thinking skills and reasoning, but there’s also evidence of side-benefits too both in general educational improvement, as well as better behaviour and attitudes, particularly on moral issues like, say, bullying.

So my major political conundrum (the myth of the rational voter) isn’t yet solved, but at least the debate as to how to positively influence change has begun with this highly recommended, mindful book. Buy it, read it and then buy a copy for the Head of your local school.

Someone offered the phrase that we see moral thought ‘through a glass darkly’ and this was certainly true of those of us listening to Prof. Billington talk on ‘Absolutism vs Relativism’ under the influence of Thwaites’ dark and silky Crafty Devil beer.

Although I agreed with his position favouring relativism over absolutism, I felt cheated by the quality of the argument. X vs Y presupposes equal weight will be given to both sides. But it wasn’t. In fact I couldn’t recognise any difference in the presentation of absolutism from authoritarianism, but there was plenty of favour for relativism through the denigration of absolutism, particular in reference to the examples cited which were all based on a fundamentalist view of religious thought.

As an atheistic agnostic I have no time for supporting such views, but it wasn’t right to characterise all absolutism with that single brush.

Moreover, I felt – as is often the case I am finding – that the binary presentation of things was in itself at fault. And here’s why.

It is my opinion that we – as civil society – intuitively need the absolute rule of law just to get by. This is why we are, on the whole, happy to consent to it. That doesn’t mean all laws are right all of the time, but they offer a framework that applies to all fairly (putting the financial aspects of the role of lawyers aside). We want to live in a world where there’s some order which prevents others from stealing from our homes or endangering our loved ones etc.

So I contest some absolutes are accepted, not entirely and not always in all circumstances, but mostly. Another example would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You might feel they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. Perhaps, but with an ideal of what is shared as acceptable behaviour for individuals and states, then the building blocks of civil society is built on potentially immoral quick-sand. With the UDHR there’d probably be no Amnesty International and without Amnesty or Human Rights Watch more abusers might well get away with an awful lot more. Today’s moral ideals could shape tomorrow’s laws.

Of course, an absolute right might be the status quo the next one day, enshrined by law as with the suffragette moving or gay rights. These weren’t universally accepted as absolute rights and in some places still aren’t. But social and cultural advance sees the ideals of a few become the absolute rights of potentially all.

Having argued that some absolutes work well, I think ALL the rest is relative.

We can see this is many religious texts which have their commandments. These happen to coincide with many of the base ideals of what civil society should be based on – but don’t themselves mean all religous texts ought to form the abolutes themselves.

These absolutes are not absolute for all time, but they‘re also not entirely relative either. As Macke said ‘There are no objective values.’ I agree. A plurality of moral dilemmas and outcomes and circumstances (place, time, cultural heritage, education, moral intelligence and experience) all add up to one’s decision. Some of these decisions will be framed by ‘almost’ absolutes (let’s call them absolute-lite) such as the rule of law or the UDHR. But all others require that we consider the issue at hand ourselves based on our relative standing – the accumulation of our consciousness experiences.

Thinking along this line, I tried to trap Prof. Billington, asking in which camp would he place utilitarianism. Categorically he replied relativist. Regrettably we moved on to another question before I could counter whether he thought the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number was a good absolute.

Frankly, I don’t care because the answer IMO, if there is one, is that it is a bit of both – the plural.

I think it was wrong to give absolutism a reputation of purely being irrational authoritarianism, even if I believe that the vast majority of moral choices are relative. We ran out time before I could posit the thought experiment that if ‘one day we woke up and found all views on moral issues were good (not only of intent but outcome) but absolute – would he still favour relativism?’

On the face of it absolutism in its rawest form doesn’t make any sense. But absolutism-lite does. The two are different and the latter is not relativism.

‘Through a Glass Darkly’ happens also to be one of my favourite Ingmar Bergman movies. Now there’s a sentence you don’t see every day.

The next pub philosophy meet will be on November 15th (usual time 7.30pm at the Rose & Crown in Tintern). Tim Cross is offering an ‘All you can eat’ buffet of modern philosophical thought, focusing mostly on his special areas of interest (conceptual philosophy and linguistics).

Another month, another philosophy circle meet. This time it was Prof. Ray Billington on the ‘Philosophy of Ought’.

His evening of ale, anecdote and debate focused less on logic and meta-ethics and more on the moral implications of the word. He offered 3 differing definitions of ‘ought’.

Firstly, ‘ought’ as the expression of expectation based on experience (derived from probability and suitability).

Secondly there was what one ought to do in terms of conduct, that is, a qualitative instruction normally offered in one’s interest, probably with the expectation of a positive outcome. This last definitive runs into the third, with ‘ought’ being a moral obligation inherited from some authority.

The latter begs the question from where does this moral obligation arise? On what authority is ‘ought’ assigned?

As usual God came up a lot. I guess that’s omnipotence in action. But as an atheist/agnostic, I put that aside, rejecting the very idea of a supernatural moral authority as a premise worthy of pursuit. There was, however, an interesting segment on whether one could logically arise ‘ought’ out of an ‘is’. For example: Jesus IS perfect and we therefore ‘ought’ to follow his example. Why? Or, just because God is our creator does not necessarily mean we ‘ought’ to follow his bidding.

No, ought, to me and a few other Darwinians (we shall call them, heathens they shall call us) in the room saw ‘ought’ as a manufactured expression of compulsion. It is an idea of what the self feels compelled by or what we feel should compel others.

I offered the example that although we could not know, it is highly unlikely that animals have a concept of ‘ought’, even those that are comparatively complex and intelligent, such as apes.  This would therefore show that is probably only something that we exhibit out of our own creation. As highly sophisticated animals, we have created the idea of ‘ought’ but it does not mean that ‘ought’ exists, in terms of a moral obligation. I felt pretty much the same about ‘time’ last month.

I used the brain in the vat example. Dave – our brain in the vat – wakes up each morning and says ‘Blimey, I really ought to do 50 push-ups each morning.’ Here we see the idea of the compulsion, but the inability for Dave to actually achieve it. But this makes the idea of what Dave ought to do no less compelling.

Some offered that ‘ought’ requires a capability and goal. That’s fine, but it is still only the expression of a compulsion, and – like most expressions – once the context of a self among many selves is added, the expression of the desire and ability to achieve it will differ from person to person to end up so internalised in one’s own reality as to be virtually meaningless.

Ayer says this kind of ‘ought’ all comes down to personal interest. And this is where the assertion of ‘ought’ might be, we Darwinians felt, a hang-over from our compulsion to merely survive. As usual, there was a rumble of discontent amongst our number and crass remarks about Richard Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’, which he himself declared dissatisfaction with (as a title) in his Introduction to Robert Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Co-Operation’, which I still haven’t read – I guess I really ought to…

Anyway, IMO the issue came down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Again. This is an expression of what drives man. The base needs are those required of survival: food, water, shelter etc. and as society becomes more advanced and affluent, we have the liberty of time and actualisation of self to start considering.  Historically, ‘ought’ may well have been tied up first with obligation to the group or clan, a higher need that pure self-survival, but this can still be interpreted as part of the wider survival mechanism.

Then, as man becomes more complex and starts on this thing we call civilisation we move up the needs chart to actualise abstract ideas based on our reflection of self and wider (society). Or, in social systems, the conduct inherited through the system itself.

With a nod to Ockham, this explains the misinterpreting of the compulsion quite well without having to magic-up a supernatural (or otherwise) higher authority on whose bidding we ought to follow. Don’t over-complicate things – the simplest answer is probably the most likely. If unpalatable as the Richard Dawkins’-bashers misunderstood.

My question to Ray was: ‘Who do we betray most if we ignore what we ought to do – the idea of ought or our free will?’

I never got a satisfactory answer (why would I possibly expect one from a Professor of Philosophy?) and as soon as we had thrown free will into the mix there was no discerning whether ‘ought’ fed into free will or arises in spite of it. At one point, however, someone from the floor reminded us that it was Kant who said (something like) ‘because we have a sense of ought, we have free will’. I am not sure I have enough understanding of his intensions here, but it does suggest that ‘ought’ feeds into free will and that Kant accepts ‘ought’ as an idea.

Trying to understand a moral meaning of ‘ought’ was, to me, as futile an exercise as asking ‘what is good?’ No wonder utilitarianism came into discussion at one point.  And the question of whether ought can arise from an IS, presupposes that ‘ought’ is itself a valid moral construct, which I cannot see it is. As Mark pointed out it is probably nothing more than a neurotic dilemma.

Oh, and just to be clear, I accept but am not entirely satisfied with the clumsy use of ought which can be used to express an expectation of the outcome of some test, as witnessed by some earlier evidence. But this is just a fuzzy version of IF / THEN logic. With morality being amongst the most fuzzy things in philosophy and, indeed, life – ‘ought’ of that kind belongs, IMO, in the dustbin marked ‘words surplus to requirement’.

Debate over. Now we really ought to move on to something else…

The next meet is our annual garden party, with the next regular meeting at 27th September with Prof. John Clarke talking on Bertrand Russell and Francis Bacon, both of whom have a link with Tintern (with Russell being born just up the road) and thus the talk/meet will form part of the Tintern Festival. Meetings kick off at 7.30pm and normally take place in the Rose & Crown pub, in Tintern.

Last night’s pub philosophy meeting (of the Tintern Philosophy Circle) was a talk on ‘A brief history of thought on the subject of Time’ by Prof. Bob Clarke of the National Physics Laboratory.

For the first time, I left a philosophy meet with the same opinion I had when I arrived.

And that is: time is merely a tool we have created to comprehend space.

Moreover, accuracy in measurement is no reason to believe time exists in itself – it is merely an articulation of something else; it does not mean that it is a thing of its own. What IS, are events. We measure the motion of events with something we have called time.

Events occur in space. The space exists and events occur in the space. As I offered in the meeting  – when someone mentioned sub-conscious time and the necessity of a viewer to create time –  that Tintern existed before any of us did, was there with the dinosaurs and pre-organic life. We might measure the time from those events and we can do this by digging into the ground with archaeology, but the events exists nonetheless, it didn’t need us to observe time for it to happen.

Similarly, the space Tintern takes up – albeit currently on Earth – will experience events forever, event after Tintern and the Earth is gone. (Here I allude to the premise and my opinion that space is still space, not vacuum, at sub-atomic level there is still something, even if in our language and science we measure that something as something akin to nothing).

Space is measured in  three dimensions (H x W x L) – these together can form a fourth dimension; you can do this on a scrap of paper by drawing a line for height, then a connected line for width and finally its length. Join all these together and you end up with a 4th dimension – the cube. IMO space is a bite out of an area where events take place. We didn’t have, um, time to go too much into space and time, focusing on the history of thought on time, but certainly when quantum mechanics came into being, I was starting to wish Ockham was in the room, to shout ‘time’ as a landlord does, not as a quantum mechanical physicist might.

Indeed, Bob offered us a bit of Kant which worked for me and that was that our rational understanding of the world is very limited, and often we stretch it beyond our capabilities (and reality perhaps?) and then Schrodinger’s equation in quantum mechanics appeared. The spirit of Ockham sighed with me and we took a long slurp of our Abbots Ale. But lo, along came the Wheeler-DeWitt equation to save us…

This supposition declares that the state of the universe does NOT evolve with time – time is absent (=0 instead of Schrodinger’s t at the end of his equation in quantum mechanics) from the equation; the universe never changes, as Parmenides stated a very, um, long time ago.

Great; this seems to add intellectual weight to my hunch that time is not fundamental to the universe and that, rather it is an emergent characteristic of it – something we have created to articulate a series of events. As much as there is no present (because it has gone before we’re able to place a flag on it) – it is just an articulation of the zeitgeist at best, something for our simple minds to cope with (and that works, which is fine, if untrue) – time itself is a fabrication.

As usual the questions segment started slowly. Because I agreed with what I think Bob felt was true about time not really being anything other that a handy tool for measurement, I decided to offer a question which backed up my opinion.

‘So, Bob – and I think we’re of one mind here on the topic of time as a useful means of measuring things – if we put aside that for one minute, that is, we accept that, what OTHER use is it?’

Bob’s answer wandered around measurements and sat navs for a while and trailed off to a place that seemed to acknowledge there was none. I thought this re-stated the case that it is nothing more than a means of measuring events.

Some of our number, however, were – as Bob pointed out with his remark about ‘time’ being the most commonly-written noun in the English language (with ‘year’ and ‘day’ being 3rd and 5th) – still struggling with the claim that seemed to be arising that time did not exist. Marie (I think it was) said that she saw it every morning when she looked in the mirror.

I responded that what you see is the events that make up the rush to death, not time. Time is what we measure it in (years), the events occur irrespective of the measure. Bob cited Newton and that time and space is immense and eternal and that it was God that created it (or did he say that was/is God? He lost me there as neither God nor time are concepts which exist to me). I agree that events will occur eternally and that space is endless (Buzz Lightyear’s ‘To infinity and beyond!’ comes to mind)  and that, again, it is our need to cope with that mind-bending reality which, as Kant suggest, is actually so beyond us, we create a language (in words, mathematical theory, cosmology and physics) to comprehend it. And we do so in error.

Furthermore, Bob suggested that, ironically, the more physicists knew about time, the more fuzzy and elusive it became. Which it naturally would do, if it doesn’t actually exist.  For example, his reading of the 2008 competition for the world’s leading theoretical physicists on ‘The Nature of Time’ saw a plurality of interesting possibilities, rather than a synergy of evidence and consolidation of post-Einsteinian theory.

Indeed, the most impressive opinion that Bob had all night, I thought, was when he said ‘Science (physics) needs philosophy.’ It might just give us cause to ponder the nature of the question, rather than seek purely the answer.

Ps. The next Tintern Philosophy Circle (pub philosophy) is on 19th July (always the 3rd Tuesday, except in August, when there’s a garden party) and is on ‘The meaning of ought (and on what authority do we say it and what do we mean?)’ with Prof. Ray Billington at 7.30pm. See you there.

Reflecting on the failure of the socialist dream people like his own communist parents had subscribed to, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in a 1994 poem [1] that ‘Research has shown Socialism to be a universal failure wherever practiced by secret police’.

This, to me, is at the nub of the problem with 20th Century socialism.

Now, however, at the juncture of the greatest crises of capitalism since the Great Depression, is it time for communism to rehabilitate itself?

The best example for us in the West of the dream gone sour is that of the former GDR (DDR or East Germany) – the Soviet satellite that found itself the frontier of the Cold War, both on its border (with West Germany) and in its capital, Berlin – divided geographically and ideologically.

In the last decade there have been a number of examples that have shown us an East Germany shaped only by the Stasi. Works like ‘The Death of Lenin’ or ‘The Lives of Others’, both brilliant movies, but both pedalling only a single thread of the wider story that was day-to-day life in the GDR. Then there have been journalistic forays into a state held captive in both Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’ and even the BBC’s own ‘Lost World of Communism’. All these rightfully question the role of the state and the individual, and offer many cases of terrible injustice and oppression. But I feel the idea of an ideology in crisis is not explored. The examples merely qualify the statement I cited earlier from Ginsberg. Those works don’t widen the debate.

Other publications, like ‘Stasi Hell or Workers’ Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic – What Can We Learn from It?’ and the Stasi Museum’s own ‘GDR Guide’, give fuller examples of everyday life for quiet conformists. They offer a narrative that living in a police state was not actually the main experience of life for the overwhelming majority, even if the culture it bred created its framework. This is not to revise, forgive or ignore those state crimes but we must be mindful that we witness the GDR from a purely Western perspective.

I am also mindful, however, of Rowan Williams’ Easter address this April where he picked up on the point that life can be richer than material wealth. A clear admission, perhaps, that the basis of socialism is still a natural human desire for many people, though they’d never call it that.

And Rowan Williams isn’t the first man of faith to recognise our principles…

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes–that is, the majority–as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation.

…says the Dalai Lama [2]. It might be a bit strange for a Marxist to cite religious leaders, but what I am doing here is trying to highlight the universality of the basis of socialism.

I am not for a second suggesting that everyday life in a police state is better than today’s relative affluence. But following the most recent banking crisis and with public services sliding away from us only to build more profit for the powerful few, the desire for something more humane is widespread. So, I contest we might to do better than to gloat at the dubious humanity of capitalism’s triumph over the Soviet Union, asking of ourselves instead whether can socialism mean more than totalitarianism?

Of course it can.

Show me where the great British socialists William Morris, Engels or Marx even suggest the formation of a police state or the summary arrest of ordinary citizens. You can’t because it doesn’t exist.

The basic premise of socialism is our most precious principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. But even that can only be built on solid ground. The opening remarks of many a revolutionary tract is the need for freedom from our oppressors. Not the freedom to oppress others.

I share the analysis of philosopher (and incumbent International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London), Slavoj Žižek, that the time for the rehabilitation of communism is now. In my opinion, the most important means to achieve this is to publicly denounce the legacy of totalitarianism and divorce it from our own modern British programmes. We have nothing in common with the dictatorships of China or North Korea, though we have everything in common with its people. That seems a good place to start.

Two fundamental aspects of Marx I find lacking in the conduct of socialism are the most important checks that have never been served well by its executors. Firstly, that Marx clearly makes a case for analysing reality in its current context – that things move in struggle and it is only in our understanding of that struggle in its current place in time that we can hope to address it; that means we cannot use early 20th Century revolutionary means to overthrow the capitalist state of today. But that does not mean the goal has moved but rather that we actively revise Marxist thinking for our own age.

Secondly, and to complement the first point is the issue of self-criticism within the current context. If only Mao had read Orwell’s 1984, then I’d rather think the Cultural Revolution would be one less shame laid erroneously at our door.

Žižek picks up on Lenin’s point [3] that sometimes it is ok to start-over. The road to revolution is not always best achieved from starting from where we left off the last time we had to abandon that road – this leads us only to misinterpret the failure and, ignoring history, repeat the mistakes for generation after generation. If we re-boot from the ground up then we build a new solution from outset in today’s context based on today’s analysis. That might sound like the road to Pol Pot’s year zero but hear me out – I cannot think of any philosopher or scientist worth listening to today who doesn’t see the education of our children as the best way to change the world for the better.

In post-war East Germany, the Soviet’s built up a youth movement to create great patriots of the Soviet. The terrible reality, however, was that, apart from the colour of their neck-ties, its members looked exactly like the Hitler Youth. It seems to me that the issue here is fear: fear of losing popular support. The need to force an ideology on citizens shows a fear that, perhaps, the ideology is not really up to the job of human civility.

I don’t think this is true. I think that if we truly believe in the power of socialism – and in particular our fundamental basis of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – then its greatest asset is in its freedom to stand proud against the immoral basis of capitalism, and to stand up to scrutiny from our own, let alone our enemies.

A socialist state built by popular support is the true expression of this project we call ‘civilisation’.

The task now is to find a home from which we can build a movement. The ‘British Road to Socialism’ – the programme of the Communist Party of Britain – unlike its less mature SP and SWP programmes, seeks this home in the Labour Party and Trade Union movement. It is under no illusion of power, but it is a compelling reminder that – if we’re honest with ourselves – for the left and true Marxists who can see the job at hand, in its current context, there is only one true place for British socialists.

[1] from ‘Cosmopolitan Greetings’ by Allen Ginsberg (Penguin, 1994)


[3] In his ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ (Verso, 2009)

Last night’s talk at the Tintern Pub Philosophy Circle was on the philosopher, David Hume who’s 3rd centenary of birth is celebrated this year.

Prof. Ray Billington led with a picture of Hume’s life. An atheist or at least agnostic, Ray presented Hume as a man in despair at the conclusions of his life’s work in philosophy. His scepticism leads him to an almost existential crisis: philosophy had failed to explain the nature of man.

‘There is no God. There is no such thing as a soul.’ Were phrases that Ray used to paraphrase Hume’s spiritual position, but where his forbears  – like Berkeley – believed the mind of God gave us our thoughts, the new age of doubt (science, discovery and the reformation) led to a scepticism where the truth needed to be tested from sense experience. Newton presented a testable methodology of observation and experiment which could describe the external world; Hume, having banished the role of God wanted to do the same for the inner world of human nature.

His failure to find success in his philosophical exploration of human nature was the cause of this existential crisis, a crisis of wisdom no less.

My understanding of John Clarke’s presentation has me summarising the problem as…

Reality is not ultimately knowable

Hume concluded that we cannot truly know reality, only our perception of it.

Dissatisfied, he only finally found peace of mind in the fact that the machine of nature itself enables us – as part of nature – to save ourselves from this scepticism.

The world of objects exists beyond us. Nature has endowed us with the means to accept causation in the world which cannot be truly proven. It is benign if not good. And it works as an acceptable consolation for philosophy’s failure to test reality.

Hume therefore is kind of a pre-Darwin Darwinian: nature has given us the natural instinct that the universe is regular – but philosophy can’t prove it – that is the nature of nature. And that’s something even we atheists can believe in.