Monday, February 26, 2007

Square Pegs in a Round World

The Eclectic Eccentrics has been launched. Hopefully this can be a new venture to work in tandem with our other sites.

I think Frank has done a very nice job designing the place. Please feel free to visit and contact him to get posting rights. The details are on his site.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Knowledge Games

I have always had a sneaking suspicion that many people attracted to philosophizing like making up outlandish scenarios; testing theories is just a subtext for creating extraordinary yarns.
Above all others, epistemologists (people who study what knowledge is) are attracted to this seminar room fantasising. The traditional definition of knowledge was "justified true belief". The major problem is that such knowledge can be undermined by sceptical scenarios.

A favourite example of mine involves a girl, let's call her Lavender, who visits a zoo. She thinks she sees a zebra in a cage, it has black and white stripes, four legs and looks like all the zebras she has ever seen. A strange old wizened philosophy professor sidles up to Lavender and asks her what she knows about the thing in the cage. Lavender says "I know that's a zebra." The epistemologist (for that is his speciality) cackles and says "do you, I wager it's a cunningly disguised mule." The problem thus becomes, could Lavender really have the justified true belief in the first instance? For the epistemologist is right, because he himself has painted the mule to fool poor unsuspecting zoogoers and plunge them in to sceptical doubt and also make a bit of money by duping them.

If you take the moral from such considerations what we say we know thus becomes justified belief, but surely we want our justified beliefs to be true? It may well be the case that they are not and so our ability to know what is true in the world has been rocked. Are philosophers having fun or are these sceptical examples a serious way of spending one's time? I say both are true, because these simple examples are ways of dramatising problems we face in making headway in philosophy, but it seems clear to me that such examples are really invented to have a good laugh and what's bad about that?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Together We Stand - Divided We Fall?

This Awkward Squad may have spread itself too thinly. We started as a joint publication enterprise and it seemed clear it was easier to keep in touch with each other and our silent readers that way. Does anyone fancy starting again? First up we need a name - my initial suggestion is Renaissance to reflect our desire to be universal men/women with a refusal to turn a blind eye to any topic no matter how obscure and also indicating a glimmer of hope that perhaps society could be experience a rebirth carved out by the new voices in the internet age. Any thoughts? Who wants to help out? Any other names?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Awkward University

Now I am rested and free to read and write philosophy, having been wholly absorbed in my preparation for my journalism exams, I hope my attempts to talk about the Prophet Isaiah are not too late and the Awkward Squad who visit here are disposed to chewing over what liberty is.

Turning to Berlin's essays on Liberty it seems obvious he was an exceptionally worthy philosopher; a man clearly worried about worldly issues despite his abstract discipline; a man conscious the thoughts of a professor in his study could wreak havoc in later years having been semi-digested by the Robespierres, the Napoleons, the Hitlers and the Stalins. He begins his famous "Two Concepts of Liberty" chastising the assembled academics who listened to this stirring lecture and his later readers by stating if a Martian were to visit a British or American University they would be forgiven for thinking the people lived in Utopia "for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers". Somehow this worry, twinned with a consciousness that the great writings of Rousseau, Marx and many others could be the foundation for such destruction, propels the essay and much of what Berlin wrote.

Given the essay is ostensibly about negative and positive liberty it comes as a shock to the reader how little the first kind of liberty is discussed. A stirring quote from J.S. Mill, a famous defender of this liberty, defines it thus: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” This, despite some academic mumbling and analysis which claims Mill’s utilitarianism is possibly incompatible with his libertarianism, seems largely to be a cornerstone for the tolerant pluralism that Berlin offers in the essay’s conclusion.

Having given a light impressionist picture of negative liberty, the chase moves to positive liberty, that altogether more abstract beast, which Berlin perceives as motivation for the totalitarian regimes haunting his writing. Essentially positive liberty is a variant of Kantian rationalism, the idea that man should act rationally, suppressing desire in favour of what the rational will dictates, and this and only this, is to be truly free. According to Berlin’s potted history of this potentially tyrannical idea it took on a menacing aspect in the hands of Fichte, who is the subject of the following brilliant animadversion:

“’No one has rights against reason.’ ’Man is afraid of subordinating his subjectivity to the laws of reason. He prefers tradition or arbitrariness.’ Nevertheless, subordinated he must be. Fichte put forward the claims of what he called reason; Napoleon, or Carlyle, or romantic authoritarians may worship other values, and see in their establishment by force the only path to ‘true” freedom.”

Dotting through intellectual history Berlin charts a historical map setting out how catastrophic positive liberty can be. Whether he is trustworthy guide to other thinkers is open to question, but there is no doubt his brilliant prose fires a blast against any philosopher or person who thinks that the failings of our fellow man can be eradicated by force and that the perfect state can be arrived at by terror.

So positive liberty is a dangerous idea, not necessarily a false one, for Berlin also thinks it animates “the most powerful and just public movements of our time, and that not to recognise this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age. But equally it seems to me that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all diverse ends of men can harmoniously be realised is demonstrably false.”

Berlin’s critique is of the system building of philosophers. The idea that the right way of acting for all can be discovered by introspection is treated with scepticism, and instead a richer understanding of the needs of others is advocated. Let yourself be driven by conviction, but don’t expect others to share your convictions. Allow people the freedom to get on with their lives even though your strong convictions might make you believe you can engineer the inner souls of others for the better. This delusion will only lead to tragedy. Simultaneously the philosopher or thinking person cannot retreat from the world, but the temptation to dictate to others what they should think should be avoided.