Kecha asked:

‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ — does this view of love correspond to the role of philosophers in society?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I wasn’t going to answer your question, Kecha, because the premise seemed so preposterous. The idea that philosophers are in any position to USE the rod is wishful thinking, at best.

As a parent, you have the power to punish your children as you see fit, although the use of the rod is increasingly frowned upon. There are other punishments available so it’s no great loss. But what can a philosopher do if he or she thinks society needs to be called to account? You can write an article or give a speech. Big deal. The only people watching Noam Chomsky videos on YouTube are those already convinced.

Casting my mind back, Bertrand Russell is the last philosopher I can think of who succeeded in making himself truly objectionable, addressing Ban the Bomb rallies in Britain in the 60s. Aged 89, he served seven days in Brixton Prison in 1961 for ‘inciting a breach of the peace’.

I almost forgot, there was Abimael Guzman — currently imprisoned — former philosophy professor and leader of the Shining Path movement in Peru. No-one could accuse him of sparing the rod. Or rather the bullet.

To cut a long story short, just a couple of days ago, I started noticing a number of posts on the professional philosophy list Philos-L ‘I Am a Dangerous Professor’, referring to an article by George Yancy in the New York Times, November 30, I Am a Dangerous Professor about his appearance in the Professor Watchlist  run by Turning Point USA.

The organization describes itself as a ‘Student movement for free markets and limited government.’ Rabid Nazis, it’s obvious innit?

Someone suggested that if every professor volunteered to join the watch list, its purpose would be vitiated. Another philosophy professor pointed out that you can’t join the watch list unless a newspaper or magazine has reported something bad about you first. Damn!

The scene at the end of the movie Spartacus comes to mind, with the defeated rebel slaves standing up and taking turns to shout, ‘I am Spartacus!’ So the Romans crucified them all, and a jolly good job too.

Of course, professors have enormous power — over their students. If you are a socialist leaning professor and one of your student writes an essay making an  impeccable case for a conservative or libertarian view of some topic, you are less likely to be impressed. Ditto, if you are a conservative leaning professor marking an essay by a student making a case for socialism. Why be surprised if a group of disgruntled conservative students decide they’ve had enough of what they see as unjust discrimination?

If that’s all it is. In his article, George Yancy mentioned Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak. The very principles of academic freedom are being threatened. To quote Mandy Rice-Davies, ‘He would (say that) wouldn’t he?’

In truth, the fascists of the left are every bit as repellent as the fascists of the right.

What is NOT fascism? I am not talking about being apolitical. No-one can escape politics. It’s a difficult line to tread. As a teacher, you have to foster and actively encourage disagreement. The students who have the courage to disagree in the face of strong opposition are the most valuable that you have. But leave your own political convictions at home. Make YouTube videos or write articles for the popular press if that makes you feel better.

If you really want to make a difference, run for office. That’s what Plato would have advised.


Issac asked:

What does philosophy say about finding a significant other? Is there such a concept as a soul mate? Is romance something of high priority we should pursue? How does one go about finding a soul mate?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Well, Issac, if you haven’t read it, Plato’s magnificent dialogue Symposium would be a good starting point. You’ve heard of the term ‘Platonic love’? This is where the concept was coined. A man and a woman can enjoy romance and sex, but your truly ‘significant other’ is one with whom you share higher ideals. For the Greeks, it would be another man.

The idea of a ‘soul mate’ derives from Plato’s Symposium.

The reason for reading Plato’s dialogue isn’t anything like ‘Let’s do it like the Greeks,’ although one can totally understand why someone who didn’t know better would see it that way.

For Plato, the highest love is for Sophia. Philo-sophy. The desire for the Truth and the Good (they are ultimately one and the same) is also a desire that you and your beloved can come to see and grasp the ultimate reality of the ‘Forms’.

How does this translate into a modern context? Pair bonding is a natural instinct which human beings have placed on a pinnacle of human achievement. Those who are unlucky never to find their soul mate, or who are prevented by natural circumstance from pursuing romantic love, are pushed towards the margins of society regardless of whatever else they may achieve in life.

And how does this process work out in reality? Badly, in many cases. That in itself is not a reason for deprecating the search for a romantic significant other, but even for those who have a chance to play the mating game, many remain frustrated or disappointed, settling for a domestic arrangement that isn’t too unbearable, or alternatively moving from one partner to the next in the hope of one day finding their ‘one true love’.

The Judeo-Christian tradition, not the Greeks, is to blame for promoting the idea that the highest form of human relationship is a man and a woman who come together in order to procreate and raise a family. The notion that your wife — or your husband — is your one and only ‘significant other’ is a mashup, some would say a grotesque mashup, of Plato and the Bible.

Making the notion of ‘significant other’ gender neutral, liberating though that may be, does nothing to untangle the confusion.

I would argue that the two ideas — Platonic and romantic love — should be kept separate and not confused with one another. Each has its own rewards and satisfactions. Human beings should be able to pursue both, separately, without strain or difficulty.

Your romantic significant other need not be your Platonic significant other.


Kenneth asked:

Does there exist a philosophical term for a general “Hate/ disgust for the contemporary society/ modern world”.  I think it’s becoming quite widespread. I would myself like to suggest: Pan-misanthropy.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You clearly dont have in mind, say,  the desperation of ordinary people in contemporary Syria, or those starving to death in poor countries.  Rather, an attitude of people in stable societies who can count on a roof over their heads, clean water  and enough to eat.

I dont think a negative view specifically of the modern world is specially common in philosophers.

Of course, since time immemorial, the older generation has thought the world is going to the dogs, morals are getting lax, respect for elders has gone, violence is on the rise, community spirit is gone etc. This is usually coupled with a rosy view of their young day when we all helped each other and had no need to lock our doors. The word that springs to mind here is “nostalgia”. The facts are against these oldies. All research shows the world to be a safer, more healthy place now than it ever was. If the level of violence, robbery and murder in Oxford was what it was in medieval times or in a typical stone-age society, I’d be frightened to go there for a pub lunch. Never mind disease, early death, oppression and lack of civil liberty in the good old days.

Among philosophers, despair is sometimes expressed, not about the modern world, but about the perennial human condition. Bertrand Russell, reflecting on the vast, empty, purposeless universe and future extinction of the solar system revealed by science, famously said in 1903:

“Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” (‘A Free Man’s Worship’)

Despite this he went on to live a very long enjoyable, productive and interesting life.

Another famously pessimistic philosopher who enjoyed a long and comfortable life was Schopenhauer.

And then we have the existentialists expressing “angst” and “ennui” about the human condition, usually while drinking coffee in upmarket cafes or debating in nicely-furnished drawing rooms.

Existentialist joke:

Scene: family car en route to holiday destination.

Small boy: Dad, Dad! I feel ennui.

Father: Well, I’m not stopping. You should have reconciled yourself to the absurdity of life before we got into the car.

Dont trust philosophers bearing despair. Dont join the panmisanthropists, as you term them. If you feel it coming on, think again. You can make a difference.


Joseph Kirby asked:

How can evolution explain that birds with such amazing colorful feathers were developed?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Traits evolve in a breeding population if they are adaptive. A heritable trait, randomly arising in an individual, will spread if it improves the chances of the individual surviving or reproducing. In short, natural selection of favorable variations.

But how can bright plumage be favorable? At first sight it seems maladaptive, making the bird easier for predators to spot.

The answer, in general, is that female birds find bright plumage attractive so that bright males have a reproductive advantage and leave more offspring.

This is an example of sexual selection (described in detail by Darwin) where traits arise in one sex (usually males) which are either attractive to females (as with bright bird plumage) or help males to compete for females (as with antlers in deer).

Sometimes, there are other explanations for bright plumage. Field work has shown that some birds benefit, not because of female preference, but because the plumage signals to competitors that a territory is occupied. And in yet other cases, the chemistry that makes the plumage bright makes the flesh taste bad, and predators learn to avoid these birds and concentrate on drabber birds.

Finally, bird eyes have four types of cone as compared with three in humans. Hence birds have much fuller colour vision than us. In particular they can see in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum which is invisible to us, so that birds whose plumage looks dull grey or brown to us may be seen by other birds in gorgeous colours that we cant even imagine.

This is an active research field and there is much more to be said about bird plumage both in males and in females. But explanation is on standard, modern evolutionary lines (natural and sexual selection, genetics and epigenetics).


Francisco asked:

I am interested in philosophy because I want to become a better critical thinker, which hopefully will result in me becoming a better debater. I want to beat others in arguments. What do you suggest I do to achieve this goal?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

If you just want to beat others in arguments, being a better critical thinker isn’t too important. Far more useful would be a willingness to keep on arguing until you opponent gives up or backs down — or collapses from exhaustion — coupled the implicit belief that you are never wrong.

As a first step towards this goal, I would recommend that you take a course of assertiveness training. You need to give your ego a bit of a boost. Don’t let the bullies with more knowledge or higher IQs get you down. You can work on your voice, too. Lower the register a bit (it’s more manly) practice your auditorium filling, parliament filling ‘boom’.

Are you married, Francisco? The experience of many, or possibly even most husbands is that they regularly lose arguments with their wives. If this happens to you on a regular basis, you need to learn how to do so gracefully. It would be better in the long run. There’s a lesson to be learned there, on more than one level.

For the philosopher, there is one, and only one reason for wanting to win an argument: you want to establish the truth. The desire to win arguments when the truth is not on your side is the mark of a sophist. If you are wrong in your beliefs, then as a philosopher you should want to be proved wrong — as Socrates says on more than one occasion. When you prove to someone that they are wrong, you are benefitting them. When they prove that you are wrong they are benefitting you.

John Stuart Mill, in his brilliant defence of the liberty of thought and discussion in his book On Liberty (1859) describes truth as the outcome of a ‘contest of opinions’. Think of debate in those terms, rather than a contest between persons. When, as a result of a healthy contest of opinions, the truth wins out, we all — ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ — have reason to celebrate.


Rondle asked:

Can you explain to me the meaning of this “Existentialist thinkers attempt to philosophize from the standpoint of an actor rather than from that of a spectator” and please elaborate thank you.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The notion that ‘philosophizing from the standpoint of an actor rather than that of a spectator’ is something peculiar to existentialist thinkers is simply wrong. Just to give one example, there’s a book written by Lewis White Beck Actor and the Spectator (The Ernst Cassirer lectures, Yale 1975) which is not in the existentialist tradition. In his lectures, Beck offers a novel solution to the free will problem intended for an audience of analytic philosophers.

The British philosopher John Macmurray has been called the ‘English existentialist’ for his proposal, in The Self as Agent (Faber 1957) that Descartes’ ‘I think’ should be replaced by ‘I do’ — from which it allegedly follows that the form of a metaphysical theory should be a ‘metaphysic of action’ rather than a Kantian ‘metaphysic of experience’. However, the notion that Macmurray was an existentialist (alongside Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre) seems to me based purely on the erroneous notion just mentioned.

One of the most important philosophers in the analytic tradition, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his later philosophy makes the strongest case for the primacy of the agent. An isolated spectator could never learn or understand a language. In order for there to be linguistic rules, there have to be individuals following a ‘practice’ embedded in a ‘form of life’. Our culture, our nature are inextricably involved in our ability to communicate with one another.

So what is peculiar to existentialist thinking that has to do with being an ‘actor’? I think there is a core idea, which has to do with the relationship between philosophy and the sciences. As an analytic philosopher, you can take on board the idea that human beings are essentially agents. For example, there are many working in the field of Artificial Intelligence who accept that a genuinely ‘intelligent’ machine would have to have a sense of its own identity as an agent in the world, interacting with other agents. To be an agent involves having a body that enables you to act in ways other than merely emitting sounds or printout or characters on a screen.

One element still missing from this picture is the sense that, as agents, you and I are more than just objects of scientific inquiry by other agents. For example, it is a widely accepted scientific fact that all living creatures eventually die. However, for an existentialist thinker (Heidegger, for example, or Levinas) our attitude towards our own eventual demise is of paramount importance. The question of what it means to ‘be in a world’ is not, and never will be, a question for science. To ‘philosophize from the standpoint of an actor’ in this sense, is to grasp the problem of what this means for my own existence rather than merely the existence of human beings generally. This is the challenge of authenticity which cannot be met simply by detached philosophic or scientific ‘understanding’.


Ethical Dilemmas by Geoffrey Klempner

'Ethical Dilemmas' Kindle eBook by Geoffrey Klempner


December 2016
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