Scott asked:

How do you rate Max Stirner?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Max Stirner, the alias of Kasper Schmidt (1806–1856) was a member of the Berlin Doctor’s Club. Here, along with other ‘Young Hegelians’ such as Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Arnold Ruge and of course, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, they discussed and radically developed Hegel’s philosophy and its applications to socio-political issues. Stirner published The Ego and its Own in 1844 and this text can be understood as the development of Hegel’s philosophy to its extreme.

Christian Spooks

A large proportion of Stirner’s book is composed of an attack on the philosophy of his fellow Young Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach. In his Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach analysed the Christian Religion. His central thesis was that human beings had abstracted and alienated their essence by positing it in a creation of theirs called God. The creation took on greater reality to become the cause of all actual things including the now subordinate human being: the creation became the Creator.

Stirner vehemently attacked this humanism as being in actuality, a perpetuation of the Christian religion and thus the continued estrangement of human beings from themselves. In his words, Fixed Ideas or Spooks still informed people’s thinking and acting.

“And after the annihilation of faith Feuerbach thinks to put to the supposedly safe harbour of love. ‘The first and most highest law must be the love of man to man. Homo Homini Deus est – this is the supreme practical maxim, this is the turning point of the worlds History’. But properly speaking only the god has changed………to homo as Deus.” (P.74)

Unselfish, other regarding actions are to be approbated as good and ‘selfish’ actions are condemned as contrary to the divine love between human beings. These Fixed Ideas become our master, categories which occupy our being prioritising an alien abstraction over and against our own interests. Feuerbach’s radical solution to the estrangement of humanity from itself in Religion actively perpetuates the estrangement; albeit in a humanist and secular guise.

The same themes Stirner identified in Feuerbach are present in political philosophies. Spooks still seek to determine how we think and act, they occupy and attempt to shape our ontology in conformity (a theme later examined in depth a hundred and so years later by Michel Foucault).

With Political Liberalism, the State is the Spook that endeavours to define what it is to be a human being. After the demise of Absolute Monarchies, the concept and practice of Citizenship is observed. As Stirner writes:

“The commonality or Citizenship is nothing else than the thought that the State is all in all, the true man and, that the individual’s human value consists in being Citizens of the State.” (P. 128)

Each citizen is to recognise and promote the welfare of the whole, to make the ends and interests of the State his/ her own interests. The concept of the ‘General Will’ as espoused by Jean Jacques Rousseau accurately captures this position. Here the interests of the Community or State as opposed to particular or sectional interests, are to be established and furthered by the stated consensus of the citizenship; this becomes law to which citizens must obey in their capacity as subjects. Hence the rational citizen transcends his/ her irrational particularity to establish the interests of the State. In doing so, the true, rational and free nature of humanity is realised. The Citizen/ State alone is the true human being, it commands and prescribes what is right and wrong; any other power such as the individual will or personality is judged as ‘Un-Man’, irrational, criminal, out-law. Again, Christian principles such as mutual love, self-sacrifice for some greater thing are present albeit in a supposedly rational and secular guise. Accordingly, the individual is reduced to a mere instrument of society, shaped, moulded and thereby limited by society’s needs as prescribed by, for example, its education system.

“…never does a State aim to bring in the free activity of individuals but always and only that which is bound to the purpose of the state.” (P. 298).


“The State wants to make something out of man, therefore, there live in it only made men, everyone who wants to be his own self is its opponent and is nothing.” (P. 299)

Again, human beings are estranged from themselves by means of a posited essence, this time the concept of the Rational and Free Human being, the subject of Citizenship. This is, for Stirner, another Spook.

Social Liberalism concerns itself with wealth and the ownership of property and entails Stirner’s understanding of Socialism/ Communism. Whereas Political Liberalism defines human beings as political citizens and nothing more; Social Liberalism is a response to the inequalities and injustices of capitalism. Its consequent diagnosis is the abolition of private property. Property will become the common property of the State/ Society. ‘Neither command nor property is left to the individual; the state took the former, society the latter.’ (P. 155).

Whilst recognising that Liberal property relations leave the average man propertyless, Stirner is highly critical the revolutionary prescriptions of Socialists like Pierre Proudhon.

Common Ownership of property merely changes the relation of the ownership of property, it does not abolish ownership. For it prevents any individual from owning property, so in theory all are owners but no one has anything. The collective becomes the new master of the ‘I’. Further, like Feuerbachian Humanism and Political Liberalism, Socialism/ Communism is a continuation of Christian ways of thinking.

“When the law says ‘The King is proprietor… of everything… he has potestas and Imperium over it. The Communists make this clearer by transforming that imperium to ‘the society of all’. Therefore because both are enemies of egoism, they are on that account Christians, or more generally speaking, religious men – believers in ghosts, dependents, servants of some generality (God, Society etc). In this too, Proudhon is like the Christians when he ascribes to God that which he denies to men. He names Him the proprietor of the earth. Herewith he proves that he cannot away the proprietor as such; he comes to a proprietor at last but removes him to the other world. Neither God nor Man (human society) is proprietor, but the individual.” (P. 331)

People will become labourers for the common good and more, will be understood as servants for the community where each labours for the other as labour becomes a defining virtue of the human essence, of socialist humanity. ‘The state will provide all’. This is another example of the self-sacrifice and abrogation of the individual for a higher ideal. In this instance communist society is the Ideal but, for Stirner it remains within and is a reiteration of Christian categories of thinking and being.

Unique Ownness, Power, Union of Egos

Stirner’s remedy is for the Ego to simply stop recognising such Spooks. Thereby, the estrangement of humanity from itself is negated and a return to the human as human as itself occurs, as Ego. It is not a matter of seeking Freedom as usually sought by political and social movements. Stirner challenges the concept of Freedom as being negative, it is always about being free from something. It is also relative and there is no substantive state of Freedom – this is a Christian concept evoking a final state, another world such as heaven which is free from everything. In reality, new relations of power replace the previous but they still remain coercive in some capacity. Besides, what is at the basis of any claim for freedom is the ego. The ego is my own, it is me as the owner of my Ownness. It is at the basis of all I do. I am Unique, no one else can be me, no-one else can perceive things as I do. At the same time I am not who I am. The ego is transcendental, a creative nothingness which is not identical with what it owns, with what it does. This continues the theme of the transcendental ego in German Idealism. It is epitomised by Fichte’s instruction to his students ‘ to think the wall in front of you. Now think about that which thinks…’ The Creative Nothing is the real basis of all social intercourse.

There is no objective ‘Right’ or morality – these only exist within Christian and crypto-Christian paradigms. There is only Power or might which facilitates what the ego can do, can possess, can retain.

“What you have the power to be, you have the ‘right’ to. I derive all right and all warrant from me; I am entitled to everything that I have in my power.” (P. 248).

In essence, it is a matter of ‘might is right’. If I choose to help other people, it is not because I am compelled to by any mythical Spook of morality in my head such as duty, right, ought; I do it because I choose to as it benefits me in some capacity. Does this entail the collapse of a society of peoples? Stirner maintains it does not as individual ego’s can associate with others in furtherance of their interests in a Union of Egoists. This is a purely voluntary association and the ego is a member only insofar as his/her interests are being satisfied. ‘Only in the Union can you assert yourself as unique; because the Union does not possess you but you possess it or make it of use to you’ (P. 415)

To the egoist, only its history has value. It wants to develop itself and not ‘Man’, ‘Society’ or any other Spook. The Egoist is not a tool to be used by God, Society etc; it recognises no calling and it lives himself out ‘regardless of how well or ill humanity fare’. (P. 489)

“I am the owner of my might and I am so when I know myself as unique. In the unique One, the owner himself returns into his creative nothing, of which he is born. Every Higher essence above me, be it God, be it Man, weakens the feeling of my uniqueness And pales only before the sun of consciousness. If I concern myself for myself, the Unique one the my concerns rests on its transitory, mortal creator who consumes Himself and I may say: All things are nothing to me.” (ibid)


Stirner’s attack on the Christian religion and its secular derivatives within an Hegelian philosophical paradigm is certainly creative and innovative. Like Nietzsche, he saw ‘modern ideas’ as a continuation of themes central to Christianity such as community, equality, self-sacrifice and the like. His solution to these issues – Egoism – although attractive in its extremism, would be unworkable. In all probability, it would entail the bellum omne contra omnes as Hobbes contended the state of nature to be in his Leviathan. Power and might of the Ego would be the dynamic of life. An ironical that Hobbes the materialist and Stirner the extreme Hegelian Idealist both arrive at the same conclusion, a conclusion that horrified Hobbes but apparently one which Stirner recommends. The Union of Egoists would essentially be a gang, a tribe and the conditions they operate in not unlike failed states in the world that we witness at the moment. It is highly unlikely that individualist egoism could prosper here, rather a subordination to gang leaders, to a tyranny of arbitrary power.

Many interpretations of Christianity would not emphasise those elements Stirner is so critical of. Many advocates of capitalism find in the Christian Bible, strictures that justify the acquisition of wealth, its consequent inequality and certainly do not draw socialistic conclusions. So Stirner’s attack on Christianity does not necessarily follow.

If the Ego can do what it wants, then say a promise made yesterday does not have to be maintained today. (Indeed, if all morality is a spook then promises would be impossible) As such, social co-operation would be impossible as there would be an absence of reliability and, of trust. The existence of a society would, I believe be impossible. To avoid this, co-operation would have to be practiced in for example, the Union of Egos, co-operation whereby compromises would have to be made by the Ego – such as observing a promise. The Ego would be doing something it doesn’t want to do which, is contrary to what Stirner holds the Ego to be. Further, some form of morality would have to be invoked for social norms – such as promising – to be possible. As Stirner denies morality, this would prove impossible.

Stirner’s reduction of all action by the Ego to its interests is little better that a tautology: I do things because I do them. It is the Self or Ego which acts – yes, how can it be otherwise? Such interests might not be in my interests – self-sacrifice does occur, people sacrifice their lives for others – this can hardly be in their own interests! Further, many actions are done without a prior calculation deciding how they might or might not be in my self interest. This area is far more complex than Stirner allows.

Evolutionary biology and anthropology provide evidence that empathy and co-operation are at the bedrock of ‘morality’. Co-operation ensured human beings survived as a species. This is the antithesis of Stirner’s position, if his strictures were adopted, it is unlikely human beings would have survived at all. Also, if co-operation and all the values Stirner attacks find their basis in human evolution, they do not have their origin in the Spooks he attacks. Therefore, his attack on Religion etc as the cause of such values is misplaced.

The Ego as unique etc, appears to come from nowhere and needs nothing external to develop as an Ego, as a human being. It is a-social. This is a point noted by Karl Marx after he had read The Ego and Its Own. The Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach states that ‘the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each human being, it is in its reality, the ensemble of the human relations’. Marx took from Stirner the point that contra to Feuerbach, there is no human essence or nature (hence he ceased to be a Feuerbachian that he was as evidenced in the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts) but, internal content is acquired from without, from society. This is the point of Stirner’s identification and criticism of the Spooks of Christianity etc which are internalised by human beings. Yet where Stirner reduces the self to a Creative Nothing, Marx maintained that as the content of human interiority is acquired from a society, the point is therefore to change society and not to negate it with and by a Creative Nothing of the Ego. Indeed, the Creative Nothing would be impossible without the internalised content acquired by social interaction, by socialisation. In this sense, Stirner’s Creative Nothingness is a non-starter. A Transcendental Ego could be retained, an Ego that transcends and is apart from social content (as Sartre demonstrates in Being and Nothingness) but which simultaneously, needs that content to be an Ego. Stirner maintains it does not, which is absurd.

As an exercise in the development of Hegelianism, I think Stirner’s work is extremely interesting. It also contains insightful critiques of modernity which have been taken up by Individualists, by anarchists of right and left and as mentioned above, insights which can be found in the works of ‘critical ontologist’ Michel Foucault concerning social categories of sexuality, gender, mental health and so on that are imposed on the human subject. Karl Marx was so perturbed by Stirner’s book that he wrote The Holy Family and more importantly, The German Ideology to refute Stirner. Taken literally and implemented, Stirner’s Egoism would be, to say the least, impractical.


Amanda asked:

I’m struggling with Bernard Williams ‘The Idea of Equality’. Can anybody help?!

Answer by Eric DeJardin

In ‘The Idea of Equality,’ Williams aims to show how we can arrive at robust conceptions of factual and normative equality — viz. equality of respect (ER) and equality of opportunity (EO) — that can help ground political equality by ‘build[ing] up’ notions of equality that, in an attempt to avoid obvious falsehoods and absurdities, are too weak and insubstantial to do the work themselves.

Williams states that moral claims ‘arise from’ certain human characteristics. When some human characteristic is universal, therefore, universal moral claims, and hence universal moral obligations, arise from it. If universal moral claims are denied on irrelevant grounds to any people or groups of people in whom the universal characteristics that ground them are instantiated, then they are being subjected to unequal treatment in the moral sense.

One universal human characteristic, Williams claims, is the ‘desire for self-respect,’ by which he means ‘a certain human desire to be identified with what one is doing, to be able to realize purposes of one’s own, and not to be the [involuntary] instrument of another’s will.’ It is the universal desire, and the basic human facts that make it possible, that constitutes ER in the factual sense, and the universal claim that constitutes ER in the normative sense. But what does the notion of ‘respect’ itself involve?

According to Williams, the content of the notion of respect can be glimpsed if we contrast viewing others from ‘the technical point of view’ (TPOV), I.e. identifying them with their social roles, successes, failures or status, with viewing them from ‘the human point of view’ (HPOV), I.e. seeing them, or attempting to see them, as they see themselves, their social roles, and the world. To treat one with respect involves making the ‘effort at identification’ that seeing someone from HPOV presupposes. It is here that Williams explicitly links up the notion of respect with the notion of equality by pointing out that social roles function as ‘conspicuous bearers of… inequality,’ and hence insofar as treating others with respect involves discounting their social roles as we consider them, it removes a substantial obstacle to seeing people as equals.

But this is not all that the notion of respect involves, for one could make an effort at understanding others from HPOV while degrading or exploiting them, a situation which involves acts or attitudes that any coherent notion of respect would seem to preclude. Further, in some cases, as Williams notes, those who are degraded or exploited cannot clearly perceive their degradation or exploitation; viewing others from HPOV, therefore, is a necessary but not sufficient condition of treating them with respect. Hence, to satisfy the obligation of respect, we need to go further than HPOV and adopt towards them an attenuated version of the ideal observer stance, seeing others not merely as they see themselves, but rather as they would see themselves if their self understanding hadn’t been contaminated by their social roles and the social structures in which they exist.

But from this it follows that people can be more or less conscious of this contamination, and Williams uses this fact to bridge the gap between the moral obligations that ER imposes on people and the political implications of ER. If ER both obligates us to see others from HPOV as ideal observers and prohibits us from degrading or exploiting others, then, Williams argues, the ‘ideal of a stable hierarchy must… disappear.’ This destabilization is enhanced when it is coupled with the notion that the role of people within a social system is ‘[a] product of the social system itself.’ So, if ER precludes degradation and exploitation, it precludes the use of propaganda and social conditioning to suppress the social awareness of the ‘lower’ orders that the enlightened hierarchical idealist must support if a stable hierarchy is to be maintained; indeed, ER on the contrary requires an obligatory enhancement of social awareness. But then if the moral obligations of ER are carried through consistently, Williams argues, we see in the consequent incoherence of the notion of a hierarchical system that is at the same time stable, enlightened and an advocate of ER, that we’ve made a significant move towards grounding political equality.

After considering ER, which is concerned with ways in which people are equal, Williams moves on to consider EO, which is concerned with ways in which people are unequal, and hence, unlike, ER is also concerned with ‘the distributions of, or access to, certain goods to which their inequalities are relevant.’ Williams begins by distinguishing inequality of need, and the goods which need ‘demands,’ from inequality of merit, and the goods which merit ‘earns.’ The ‘proper ground’ for the distribution of needed goods is, Williams argues, the need itself, but the proper ground for the distribution of merited goods is not necessarily merit alone, for unlike the case of needed goods, it’s not the case the only those who earn merited goods can be said to desire them. We must consider, then, with merited goods, ‘not only… the distribution of the good, but also… the distribution of the opportunity of achieving the good,’ the latter of which ‘can be said to be distributed equally to everybody.’ Questions about EO arise when we consider merited goods that are scarce, and that many people from all ‘sections of society’ desire. Hence, EO is fundamentally concerned not only with who acquires merited goods, but with who is excluded from acquiring merited goods, and so with the proper grounds of exclusion from access to them.

After considering a number of formulations of EO, Williams concludes that the proper grounds of exclusion from access to merited goods (1) must be ‘appropriate or rational for the good in question,’ (2) should be ‘such that people from all sections of society have an equal chance of satisfying them,’ and (3) cannot comprise socially correctable disadvantages that are strongly correlated with certain sections of society.

With condition (3), we see a sense in which ER and EO converge, for ER obliges us to discount the social roles that act as bearers of inequality, while EO obliges us to discount the correctable social factors that help determine the distribution of those social roles. In this sense, both ER and EO oblige us to look beyond socially determined bearers of inequality to the person himself; and although this may not get us all the way to a notion of the equality of persons, it does, Williams argues, ‘[move us] recognizably in that direction.’

But it is at the point at which ER and EO seem to converge that we can most clearly see both the ways in which they differ and the ways in which these differences, coupled with certain psychological and anthropological considerations, lead ultimately to a deep conflict between the two.

First, ER is invoked in cases in which people are said to be equal, whereas EO is invoked in cases in which people are admitted to be unequal.

Second, ER has both factual and normative elements, whereas EO is entirely normative, and hence must rely on a distinct factual conception of equality to ground it.

Third, ER is not concerned, as EO is, with the distribution of limited goods, from which it follows that ER does not rely, as EO does, on the distinction between need and merit.

Fourth, ER obliges us not to focus at all on social status, whereas EO is fundamentally concerned with the distribution of goods the possession of which almost inevitably confers social status, and which are at least partly desired because of this.

Fifth, ER is fundamentally concerned with the desires, aims and beliefs of a person not with an eye to their efficacy in bringing about certain ends, but rather insofar as they uniquely identify each person as an individual, whereas EO looks upon them as potentially modifiable human characteristics that may or may not conduce to the achievement of specific ends; hence, with ER we find ourselves reflecting on recognizable persons, whereas with EO, pushed to its logical extreme, we find ourselves reflecting on persons conceived of as ‘pure subjects or bearers of predicates.’

We are now able to see the myriad ways in which ER and EO might conflict in practice, and we are also in a position to understand better the reasons that explain this conflict.

ER and EO conflict insofar as they are targeted at distinct ends: The end of ER is to treat persons as they are independent of their social roles, I.e. to accord them a degree of dignity simply because they are by nature beings of a certain kind, viz. conscious, rational agents with a particular view of themselves and of the world; the end of EO, on the other hand, is to provide every person with a fair and equal opportunity to achieve some desired but limited end which may ultimately frustrate our efforts at securing ER by acting socially as a bearer of inequality.

The reason that a vigorous pursuit of EO may ultimately frustrate ER is that our notion of respect is itself prima facie inconsistent: on the one hand, we accord, and desire to accord people respect simply in virtue of their being people; on the other hand, one of the specific aspects of persons to which we accord respect is their capacity for achievement.


Sondra asked:

Is it acceptable in today’s post-postmodern society to lack a passion; to not be passionate?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

This is a deceptively simple question, which could probably lead to a semester worth of philosophical explorations. Let me give you a flavor of what I mean by focusing in turn on some of the key words in your query:

‘acceptable': To whom? Who should we elect as the arbiter of what is or is not acceptable nowadays? We could go for society at large (consensus? majority?), but of course cultural history and anthropology tell us very clearly that what is acceptable to one society in one historical period may not be acceptable to another society in the same time frame, or even to the same society at a different time. Gay marriage was definitely not acceptable in American society until a few years ago, but it is now becoming the norm, and has consequently been legalized in a number of states.

Perhaps a better way to frame the issue is to argue that some things ought to be acceptable (or unacceptable) across human societies, and if they are not so in a particular society and time it is because members of that society have not realized it, yet. For instance, in ancient Athens it was acceptable to have slaves, and the same of course was true of the United States a mere 150 years ago. But we regard that attitude as unacceptable, without qualifications. Moreover, we think that we have good reasons for our rejection of slavery — i.e., our stand on the issue seems to be of a qualitatively distinct kind from the eventual rejection of, say, the fashion for Victorian corsets. And yet, it is famously devilishly difficult to pinpoint exactly why at the least some moral dictates should be thought of in an altogether different category than fashion or etiquette.

‘post-postmodern society': do we really live in a post-postmodern society? Or are we still in a postmodern one? I guess it depends on what one means by ‘postmodern.’ Postmodernism is a complex set of cultural and intellectual trends that have affected literature, the arts and philosophy for decades during the 20th century, and which still, to some extent, exert influence on contemporary society. But it isn’t at all clear that there is a uniquely valid interpretation of what it means to adopt a postmodern stance, and of course even more so a post-postmodern one! At a minimum, postmodernism was a reaction to modernism, yet another complex and somewhat vaguely defined set of cultural attitudes that characterized sectors of Western society after World War I. Modernism — naturally — was itself a reaction to the horrors of that war and to the dehumanizing aspects of the Industrial Revolution. It was also, in an important sense, a rejection of the Enlightenment simplistic optimism about the power of human reason.

One might therefore infer — incorrectly, as it turns out — that postmodernism represents a return to the values of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, the term is often associated with extreme skepticism and with various forms of epistemic and moral relativism (i.e., with the ideas that there are no better or worse ways of knowing things — science is just another type of human activity, on the same level as, say, religion or mysticism; and that there is no such thing as right and wrong, there are only cultural variations on what is or is not — arbitrarily — acceptable to people).

But there is a variety of arguments against postmodernism, beginning with the obvious observation that it is self-defeating: if there is no particularly good reason to adopt any epistemic or moral perspective, why should I adopt the postmodernist one? Moreover, it has been observed that postmodernists themselves don’t really live up to the philosophy they preach. A good number of them, for instance, still go to the doctor when they are sick, or to the mechanic when their car doesn’t run, on the face of it contradicting the very idea that all knowledge is relative and that expertise is an illusion or a just a power play. If any of these or other arguments against postmodernism have succeeded (or if people just got a bit tired of the postmodern fad), then we do live in a post-postmodern society.

‘passion': what do we mean when we say that someone may lack passion? Most human beings are passionate about something, unless they are severely mentally disturbed. As David Hume pointed out, in fact, passions (i.e., emotions) are really in charge of what we do most of the time, and we use reason largely instrumentally, to achieve the goals about which we are passionate. For instance, I am passionate about explaining philosophy (I know, go figure!), which is why I am writing these words. You could present me with an argument as for why I should care, but, honestly, if I didn’t already care such argument would be merely academic (in the worst sense of the word).

Perhaps your question is really aiming at whether it ought to be acceptable for people not to care about something above and beyond their own needs and wants. We do live in what seems to be an increasingly cynical society, at the least in the United States, where a number of people have elevated egoism itself to a virtue, so the question is perfectly appropriate. The answer depends on how you react to the fundamental moral question that the ancient Greeks posed to themselves: what sort of live ought I to live? What they proposed — the pursuit of the eudaimonic life, a life of flourishing — implies the pursuit of a number of virtues. These virtues famously include courage, temperance, magnanimity, proper ambition, good temper, modesty, friendliness, and even wittiness and appropriate righteousness. As you can see, all of these are ethical virtues, and as a consequence I’m pretty sure Aristotle would reply to you full question in the negative: no, it is not acceptable to be without passion, because it means you would not be a full human being, nor a good and moral member of your polity.


Nathan asked:

When we carry out a thought experiment, we can’t test the underlying philosophical hypothesis with any empirical data. So, besides logical flaws, what are the criteria for evaluating a philosophical hypothesis? And how can we benefit from thought experiments in our daily lives?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Briefly, when we assess a philosophical thought experiment for ‘logical flaws’ this does not just cover formal logic but flaws in conceptualising and reasoning.

This is a big deal. In thinking about the ‘big’ questions, our thoughts are often confused, in a deep way. The mode of expression may be logical (there is no obvious self-contradiction) and yet we are enmeshed in one or other form of ‘disguised nonsense’ (to use Wittgenstein’s term: ‘My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense’ Philosophical Investigations para. 464).

The aim of a philosophical thought experiment is to help you to do this. In filling out the details of the imagined scenario, you are forced to see hidden clashes or incoherencies that you weren’t aware of before, forced to ask questions that you hadn’t thought to ask before.

A thought experiment should also take account of any clash with empirical data, or at least theories formed on the basis of such data. For example, a thought experiment claiming to ‘prove’ the validity determinism would be put in question by discoveries in physics. Kant tried to do this in the ‘Analogies of Experience’ in the Critique of Pure Reason. He presented what he thought was a cast-iron proof of the necessity of determinism, but it is widely considered today that he was wrong.

So there is a two-way process here. Sometimes it takes an empirical result to make us see that we had reasoned out something wrongly a priori.

As for the use of thought experiments in our daily lives — we do this all the time. You offer to take Granny along with you for car trip to the seaside. Your wife points out that there’s no way Granny can sit in the back with her arthritis, and Uncle Joe’s legs are far too long to squash him in there. That’s a thought experiment. You didn’t need to actually try to fit Granny and Joe into the car, you could ‘see’ the result in your mind’s eye.

Of course, there’s also a question whether philosophy as such is useful in our daily lives, which I think it is. The debate over free will, for example. In that case, any philosophical thought experiment will impact on the decisions we make.

Nathan is currently following Pathways Program A The Possible World Machine.


Sebastien asked:

What point was Hume trying to make with the missing shade of blue in the Treatise of Human Nature?

Answer by Craig Skinner

The existence of the idea of a missing shade of blue contradicts Hume’s Copy Principle that simple ideas all derive from antecedent simple impressions. But he dismisses this ‘exception’ as unimportant. Why then does he mention it, and, as you say what point is he trying to make.

He deals with the matter in exactly the same way in both the Treatise and, eight years later, in the first Enquiry, so that it is no throwaway line or momentary lapse.

He first argues that all perceptions of the mind can be classed as impressions or ideas. He holds that a simple idea is always copied from an antecedent similar impression.

Almost immediately after saying this, he seems to produce an idea not derived from an impression, ‘one contradictory phenomenon':

"Suppose… a person… perfectly well acquainted with colours of all kinds, excepting one particular shade of blue… which it has never been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be plac’d before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest… he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting, and will be sensible, that there is a greater distance in that place betwixt the contiguous colours, than in any other… I ask whether ’tis possible for him… to… raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, tho’ it had never been convey’d to him by his senses?" (Treatise

Yes he can, says Hume, and this ‘may serve as a proof’ that simple ideas are not always derived from an antecedent impression. However ‘this instance is so.. .singular, that ’tis scarce worth our observing, and does not merit that… we shou’d alter our general maxim’.

Over the years the exception has been variously explained away as,

* not really an exception: it depends on sensory experience of other shades of blue; or colours are complex not simple ideas; or the subject perceives it as conceptual content (he perceives ‘missing blue shadily’ as modern ‘adverbial’ accounts of perception have it), not as an image.

* Hume being paradoxical in hopes of better book sales (!)

* Hume being ironic. His declared method is observation/ experiment and the undoable thought experiment (how could I know whether I had or hadn’t previously seen that missing shade?), like the metaphysical speculation he decries, is not to be trusted.

But Hume is clear (and, it seems to me, serious): colours are simple ideas, the subject imagines (has an image of) the missing shade, it is an exception to his Principle; and he also appears to recognize that the instance generalizes to other colours and to other sensory modalities.

To me, the least implausible suggestion, is that Hume uses an exception to emphasize that his Principle is an empirical one. In his terminology, it is not a Relation of Ideas (an a priori truth) which would not necessarily tell us anything about the world, but rather a Matter of Fact (contingent truth) of which, therefore, the contrary is logically possible. He is speaking of a conceivable contradiction, not an actual one. But there again he could just have said this without any elaborate example.

So, Hume’s blue shade is a grey area, just right for scholarly dispute of the storm-in-a-teacup sort.


Charles asked:

Alan Turing in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence (Mind 49: 433-460) posited that to verify the proposition Machines can think one must use an The Imitation Game, instead of trying to (philosophically) define the terms machine or think, since this would only lead one to, reflect so far as possible the normal use of the words, and that therefore this, attitude is dangerous, given that there is a certain amount of semantic alteration in any term over time and therefore no definitive verification or answer to our question, Can machines think?

However, can one make a philosophical case that such statements as x can y are statements of ability, and that therefore the Turing test is not a substitute for philosophical investigation, since this can must be decided in and for itself? Therefore the question to which I would like some advice is, Can statements of known ability, i.e. x can do y, be verified using an imitation test which may confuse like with identical with?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

To solve this question, you only need to look at the way we humans communicate via books, letters, emails, radios etc. The possibilities for hoaxes are unlimited. You can never be sure that the author you are reading actually wrote the book (maybe it was ghost writer or a parodist). In some sectors of society, the fashion for expressing oneself are so pervasive that everyone seems to have the same voice and idiom, e.g. argot or scientific and academic literature. I am sure that any programmer worth his salt could get his computer to write up a perfect imitation of a paper on quantum gravity and maybe even imitate such voicing.

But this ignores the human specificity. When a writer or speaker or actor or singer imposes individuality on their tone of voice, their manner of delivery, their syntax and grammar (not to mention sentence fillers like ‘just’, ‘you know?’, ‘eh’, ‘um’ and so on) they are constitutive of individuality. Such inflections carry their own communicative value and intention, and intuitive creatures are capable of discerning them. The phrase ‘reading between the lines’ or ‘understanding what is not being said’ indicate something of this.

The crux of the matter is, that the book you are reading, the speaker or singer you are hearing on radio, are not in direct communication with you, but at a step removed which permits all sorts of technical intervention. The only means of foolproof evaluation of authenticity is your actual presence, so that you can watch the facial motions, eyes and eyebrows, stance and comportment, when you receive much more than just the words (or the song).

Turing’s proposition about testing for the quality of imitation does not meet these indispensable criteria. This is because he and his cronies misunderstand the nature of both imitation and intelligence. It does not take a very deep understanding of ‘human intelligence’ to know that it cannot be reduced to mechanised mimetic resources. Turing literally grabbed the stick by the wrong end, proceeding from the limitations of imitation to the origination of behaviour. This only succeeds in obscuring the difference which pertains to a living creature’s intelligence, of which the most significant content is the initiation or origination of behaviour. Further, it completely ignores that intelligent learning is mimetic only to a limited degree and on the whole considerably individualised, even among children. Every human being knows without the slightest expenditure of deep thought that the only way of ensuring consistent imitation in a learning environment is drill. People who have been drilled are the counterparts to Turing’s machine intelligence, in that they are not required to be persons, but on the contrary expected to perform a quasi machine-like response to the situations which the drill expects them to master (without necessarily involving the specific form of human intelligence).

I might usefully remind you in this context of the dispute around IQ tests that have erupted upon the realisation that these tests do not measure intelligence, but the skill of passing IQ tests. Students sitting repeatedly for IQ tests gain familiarity and improve their results. The logical conclusion for designers of these tests is that they must either accept that the students’ intelligence quotient rises after repeated exposure, or else that their definition of an IQ rests on a defective appreciation of intelligent adaptitivity. However, the predicament for them is that changing the test immediately changes the definition of an IQ. Therefore tests cannot not reveal the intrinsic IQ of the subjects, as the whole concept of an intrinsic level of intelligence is faulty.

The relevance of these comparisons is clearly, that in both cases a kind of ‘absolute’ criterion is posited – in IQ tests for a reliable measure of intelligence, in Turing’s test for a reliable measure of discernment. Both are stale exercises, because they under-appreciate the resourcefulness of human intelligence.

Much more could be brought into this argument, but if you will carefully think about it, you should come to the conclusion that all such tests possess only the limited value of revealing the extent to which subjects can be made willing to suppress the nature of their authentic intelligence to fit into the mould of a mechanical model. These conditions, moreover, reveal that the designers of Turing tests, IQ tests and others of the same ilk simply misunderstand the nature of philosophy as something which it is not. They seem to believe that philosophy is logic, whereas logic is merely a tool for the achievement of consistency in thinking. They seem to believe that philosophy is basically the hoarding of knowledge, whereas in reality philosophy is intrinsically about understanding the knowledge which we acquire by experience and research. Most importantly, however, such tests are about the suppression of human individuality. They reveal almost nothing intrinsic to human intelligence, but everything about minds trapped in a deterministic framework that seeks to trim down the living impulses from which intelligence arises.

I’ll leave it to you to work out whether the existence of such tests implies prejudicial authoritarian pressure on us to stop thinking as individuals and accept that society is better off when we all behave like robots.



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