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Anatomy, Кибермозг

Can Philosophy contribute to an understanding of Artificial Intelligence?

One might ask: what contributions could philosophy possibly make to an understanding of computer technology, in particular Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)?  Is this not the exclusive province of technical people who have no need for a philosopher’s meddling? We shouldn’t prejudge this issue; rather, it’s worth exploring whether philosophy can add anything of value to the discussion. And if so, what value does it add?

A.I.: some philosophical thoughts

Contemporary philosopher Andy Clark has made an important contribution to the study of A.I by raising questions about its assumptions. Clark, who is also trained in the cognitive sciences, has investigated whether A.I.’s model of an abstract computerized ‘mind’ that is separate from the concrete physical reality of the body and external world might be wrong.

Why, he wondered, are our ‘intelligent’ artifacts still so seemingly dumb? Perhaps it is because we have completely misconstrued the nature of intelligence itself. We have conceived of the mind as simply a logical, reasoning device linked to a set of explicit data—a kind of a cross between a logic machine and a filing cabinet.

Instead, Clark offers an alternative: the philosophical theory of the extended mind, which questions the natural boundary between the mind and the world. This is a scientific operationalization of Kantian epistemology—a computational and neuroscientific theory  known as “Predictive Processing”—in which the mind is not a passive spectator, but actively engaged with sensation. Instead of accepting the empiricist thesis that the brain merely receives and processes sensate data from putative external causes, Predictive Processing , a la Kant, argues for generative schema—“chains of endogenous procedural rules”—which actively shape and structure raw experiential data (though Predictive Processing frames these Kantian themes inside a very non-Kantian biological and evolutionary theory). The human mind/brain is an active player in the experiential world, rather than merely reacting to stimuli.

Clark further observes how studies in robotics and A.I. have tended to discount the role of intelligence in functioning in the physical environment, such as walking or performing tasks. This smooth interaction of the body, world, and mind—often seemingly an unconscious process—conflicts with A.I.’s abstract, logic machine model, bifurcated from the external, natural world.

A.I.: philosophically neutral?

Andy Clark has called our attention to the fact that the cognitive model assumed by current researchers in A.I. does not have a monopoly on the nature of the mind, but is in tension with a countervailing paradigm of the mind rooted in a previous philosophical tradition. Despite the impressive technical accomplishments inherent in building such robotic systems, they are not philosophically neutral, that is, they are not just pieces of technology constructed in a vacuum, without assuming a particular philosophical context. A.I. is not the last word, but only one voice, albeit impressive, among other conflicting models of knowledge and the mind.

Distinctions made by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein suggest a way of exploring this issue: because multiple “language games” have their own unique rules, they are incommensurable. For example, the language of science and mathematics differs from any number of other language games such as the language of religion, which in turn differ from each other. Furthermore, A.I. has its own unique language game separate from alternative paradigms of learning and knowledge, which are based on an active engagement of the human biological body with the physical world—a physicality that machine-based A.I., by definition, does not have.

Artificial vs. Creative Intelligence

Extrapolating from Clark’s analysis and Wittgenstein’s insights, we can now discern the limits of A.I.’s abstract machine model: it obviates the need for the human body and emotions as the means to know and learn. A.I. researchers, in designing robotics to perform functional tasks, such as playing chess games, translating languages, verifying financial fraud, and computing mathematical theorems, have not touched upon the other ways flawed, non-digitized humans obtain knowledge.

For example, as John Dewey argued, humans naturally think experimentally, testing hypotheses in their encounters with physical reality and social problems in order to find knowledge rather than relying on ‘infallible’, preexisting dogmas for guidance. Artificial Intelligence does not mirror this type of creative intelligence, in which fallible homo sapiens, without absolute rules, are immersed in the world confronting, as Dewey wrote, the unexpected, the “reaching forward into the unknown,” not only learning but changing the given.  Moreover, creative intelligence, naturally entwined with the human organism, is conducive to serving human purposes and interests by solving problems and finding knowledge that benefit individuals in a social context.

Thus A. I.’s abstract machine model, despite its important uses, fails to emulate human intelligence in all its richness; instead it is grounded in specific, limited types of cognition, or, in Wittgensteinian parlance, particular language games (e.g. language translation, solving mathematical formulas) that are different from forms of creative, experimental and moral intelligence used, for example, in social reform, public policy, or even artistic innovation.

Multiple intelligences, not one…

If Andy Clark is right, then Artificial Intelligence’s perceived threat to human knowledge workers, as well as to their essential emotional intuitions, is overblown. One-dimensional robotic minds that can win at chess, predict the weather, and perform other problem-solving tasks will not be able to replace human creativity, intuition, activism, empathy, and judgment— that is, multiple forms of alternative intelligences that do not fit the abstract machine model paradigm, the “logical, reasoning device.” Even Facebook—that vaunted user of A.I.—is finding that it does not replace human intelligence. Facebook’s reliance on A. I., is failing to combat fake news; keywords often can’t effectively identify misinformation. Human intelligence is needed. In other words, Artificial Intelligence cannot replace human intelligence.

Humans, unlike robotic systems, experience their minds and lives through many different contextual grounds, learning and knowing via emotional, artistic, political, musical, literary, and biological encounters with the world that go beyond just technical problem resolution. This means that there will always be new challenges for philosophers—the ultimate knowledge workersto understand the different forms of intelligence that humans use in their efforts to comprehend—and changethe world.

Thomas White is a Wiley-Blackwell journal author, and previous contributor to Undercurrent Philosophy, Aeon, The Philosopher’s Eye, and other journals. He is also  a poet and speculative fiction writer whose work has appeared in print and online in Australia, Canada, United States, and Great Britain.

'Banksy Brexit mural', Immanuel Giel

Brexit in a 200-year news cycle

I want to argue that Brexit presents Britain a good opportunity to bring to the surface some centuries-old conflicts that define British character: the failure of England’s revolutionary cadres – starting with the Revolutionary Government of 1649 – has had a lasting effect on the British constitution, and the poisoned attitude towards Europe that this incomplete revolution has instilled in us.

I originally wanted to write that the Brexit vote had created an aporia in public discussion of our national future that could be exploited by interested parties (big business, geopolitical foes) to mislead the public. But I decided that only a media purist could believe that the Brexit vote was the sole factor in this; the media strikes its target sometimes, but it has never been free from interests and predispositions.

The Orwell Prize for The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr is richly deserved, and the political forces behind Brexit have clearly drawn on malign tendencies, but where the news media may stand in our way is in our attempt to understand Brexit as primarily a people’s movement.

The media, stuck in its 24-hour news cycle, cannot see beyond the general public’s hatred and distrust of those who fight for the limelight from day to day – including politicians and big business leaders. Brexit, to the media, is a matter of ‘British statecraft’, to use the term former FT journalist and transport minister Jo Johnson used in his resignation letter. The major UK newspapers have been reporting on public distrust of those in contemporary politics for centuries and this won’t change overnight.

But Brexit has shown that we are curious about our country, its historical predisposition towards confusion, vengeance and petulance, and its fear of Europe. From where do these really derive? Brexit has given us a chance to unearth and face up to this character and perhaps even lay the groundwork for a more progressive future.

If we don’t, the economic ruin and national embarrassment wrought by Brexit – enabled by a thousand inexcusably hateful Daily Telegraph op-eds, unscrupulous campaigning tactics and the mendacity of elite Conservative politicians whose bizarre claims about Brussels are nonetheless swallowed whole by a pliable media – would all be for nothing.

If Brexit can spark the collective imagination into unearthing ideas that have been buried for as long as Britain has harboured a poisoned relationship with Europe, then we can catch up on three centuries of buried English history.

Mining the rich seam that is our last three centuries of history for real evidence of the circumstances leading to the Brexit vote, we can start to imagine that it is a step – albeit a painful one – towards completing an unfinished chapter of British history: our ‘failed revolution’.

Our ‘shared’ history

To understand Brexit, we have to understand Britain’s inner contradictions – those which make our country truly unique.

The Act of the Union, which brought England and Scotland together in 1707, is a good place to start: to consolidate the power of the Royal Family, it consolidated England and Scotland to form Great Britain.

The events of the last five years suggest that the strange coping mechanisms we have found to try to maintain this delicate balance of power are taking their toll. It is a huge anomaly for such an arrangement as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to last for as long as it has.

The Scottish independence movement was never guaranteed victory because of the strength of the coping mechanism we have created for the UK in its uneasy state of union: British identity.

Fellow of Nuffield College, David Miller, in a blog post written at the time of 2014’s Scottish referendum, questioned whether the Scottish people’s British identity could outlive the present Queen; the fact that so many in the Commonwealth still bear their historic ties to Britain “appears to have a lot to do with personal affection for” her.

Moreover, British identity has to do with our shared scorn for Europe.

Matthew Goodwin, Associate Fellow at Chatham House, highlights in his paper, ‘Brexit Britain: The Causes and Consequences of the Leave Vote’ – a version of which was delivered as a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society – that the referendum seemed to bear out Linda Colley’s thesis in her important work, Britons. Colley says: The British “came to define themselves as a single people not because of any political or cultural consensus at home, but rather in reaction to the Other beyond their shores”.

The referendum on Scottish independence was close but unsuccessful. The referendum on Europe was not. Though the majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU (62 per cent), an important minority of Scots, Londoners, citizens of other urban centres and the vast majority of the English voted to leave. Europhilia in many of these areas is ambivalent, rather than decisive. Scorn for Brussels and the European institution definitely unified British citizens from all nations, not just the English.

Poisonous relationship

The English votes for Brexit were far more interesting. To understand them, I draw on a special variation of the Nairn-Anderson thesis, a little-cited but somewhat credible account of English identity formed in the 1960s and best summed up with a quote from the narrator of Patrick Keiller’s 1994 film, ‘London’: “The failure of the English revolution… is all around us: in the Westminster constitution, in Ireland, and poisoning English attitudes to Europe”.

Where is the evidence of this failed revolution since the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660? It’s in the centuries of people’s history in England that has shaped the nation we now live in. This includes the Levellers, who advocated a form of suffrage in the Putney Debates of 28 October 1647 that is close to the Parliamentary democracy we have today; the Chartists who upheld the secret ballot and other democratic reforms of the People’s Charter; and the suffragette movement for whom attaining votes for women was one crowning achievement among many.

Next year, the UK observes the second centenary of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. A Mike Leigh film – documenting the fatal charge against protestors gathered to demand political reform – premiered in Manchester earlier this month in anticipation of the second centenary this year. These movements loom large in the English imagination.

Time after time, troops on horseback unleashed against English citizens have halted revolutionary movements in their tracks.

This rich seam of people’s history shows that the seeds of contemporary England were sown by English revolutionaries and radicals – but not all of these efforts took root as they might have done. The English have internalised the conflict and, as a supremely class-conscious society in a predominantly impoverished world, struggle to understand their place.

In spite of England’s revolutionary spirit, we continue to be ruled by an elite class and under a monarchy whose pre-Windrush sensibilities, which would not be out of place on TV series Downton Abbey, are the foundations for an industry that extracts value from the British people rather than making us happier and wealthier as they have promised to throughout modern history.

And yet not even the Royal Family is targeted by scorn in the way that Europe is. The spirit of the Levellers, Chartists, suffragettes and the heroes of Peterloo is all around us in our modern democracy, but still our monarchy persists, yet to be dragged into the 21st century – yet to be dragged even into the 18th century.1

Observers of the last two years can see Britain has made no progress on these blights. We still live in a society riddled with income inequality and with the dreadful consequences of outsourcing more of our health and welfare delivery into the hands of the private sector, whose value-extraction machine, assisted by the ‘Big Four’ and other accountancy firms with consultancy practices, fills the pockets of the already-wealthy.

Yet I’m not here to write anything as glib as “all revolts are symptomatic of deeper currents” (Matthew Goodwin, in his Royal Geographical Society lecture).

Turning to the state of play within Brexit today, there is no use in arguing with Brexiteer factions that we retained our sovereignty all along, that we don’t need to take it back from Europe, or that “Britain’s supreme law-making power has continued to reside entirely with elected MPs” (Brian Flanagan, Department of Law, Maynooth University in this RTE article). Questions of the EU’s unwarranted supremacy over UK Parliament have been settled from the start by these Brexiteer factions.2 This is not a result of the strength of the legal case, but because Brexiteers’ protests over the need to restore Parliamentary sovereignty were addressed not just to the UK’s Treaty obligations to abide by EU law, but also to the looting of power from Britain by the Europe of the British imagination.

If we read today’s news and cast our minds back to the Peterloo Massacre, just under 200 years ago, and other major milestones in the British people’s history, we might remember that Europe can never grant us what we truly want – to complete our revolution. The Europe of the British imagination is the culprit responsible for the failure of Britain to achieve its revolutionary ambitions, and Brexit is one of the most promising glimpses we have had in a long time of the force this urge towards revolution still has in English life.

Afterthought: what other factors were there?

Among the more convincing arguments that the Brexit vote correlates with other prevailing modern views or circumstantial factors, there are two particularly good suggestions:

  • The correlation between support for Leave and support for the death penalty (71 per cent of Leave supporters backed capital punishment versus just 20 per cent of Remain voters).
  • The tendency towards voting Leave in areas lacking access to high-speed broadband connections.

I can explain neither of these, except to point out that Remain voters are probably in the minority in opposing capital punishment, having high-speed broadband and hiding their discontent with European integration so well.


Sean Canty is a public relations consultant and ghost-writer who lives in South London. He studied Theological and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge, worked with individuals and organisations affiliated with Britain Stronger In Europe during the EU referendum campaign in 2016, and holds one British passport and one other. 

Twitter: @S_D_Canty

Further reading:

Matthew Goodwin, ‘Brexit: Causes & Consequences’, /

Ellen Meiskins Wood, ‘The Peculiarities of the English and the decline of Britain’,

John Harris, ‘Peterloo shaped modern Britain, as much as any king or queen’,

Patrick Keiller writes in Research Review (April 2010), available here:

European Commission in the UK: ‘Euromyths’,

'Vom Winde verweht', Margret Hofheinz-Döring

What has philosophy done for us?

This essay is a consideration of philosophy as a remarkable workshop of conceptual innovation that has contributed immeasurably to human knowledge, including practical knowledge. It is about the real impact of philosophy.

One area in particular where philosophy has offered powerful beneficial insights concerns the status, and rights of women. By questioning the historic denigration of women, philosophers, via their powerful arguments, have done a lot for both men and women.

Freeing Women from Male Subjugation

In their analysis of the ontological and social status of women, philosophers Simon de Beauvoir and Plato frame the issues around what philosophers have come to call the fact/value distinction. It is the fallacy of deriving the “ought” (values) from the “is” (facts) known as the Naturalistic Fallacy. This philosophical point is especially helpful in refuting male prejudices towards women.

Considering historical views of women as filtered through the male consciousness, de Beauvoir notes the traditional tendency of men to conflate the existence of women’s body (facts) with opinions about women’s abilities and identities (meanings). “Her body”, de Beauvoir writes, “is not enough to define her.” The facts of biology do not carry meaning. “Physiology cannot,” de Beauvoir further asserts, “ground values.”  

Instead, values are conferred on the biological data—by, of course, men, who have used physical differences between men and women to dominate women (e.g. the physical facts of menstruation has been used as an excuse by men for shunting women away from the public world, conferring on this biological fact the pejorative value of ‘weakness’). However, women are, in truth, not prisoners of their bodies. Her body does not define her because “[w]omen is not a fixed reality, but a becoming”. In sum women like men can confer value on their own existence; they are not merely closed systems, physical/biological entities, but have the freedom to transcend their immediate situation qua body, and find a future identity not grounded in their physicality—an argument contrary to the historical biological determinism of sexist men who have drawn fallacious inferences about the ontological meaning of women from the latter’s physiology.

Plato also questions the use of women’s bodies qua bodies as an ontological criterion for validating their rights and roles in society.  The woman’s body as endowed with a ‘female’ gender does not make the fundamental difference, but rather the excellence of the soul. If women are exclusively defined by their bodies, the distribution of social roles between men and women becomes – as it was in Plato’s Greece – sharply demarcated between public and private, relegating women to inferior and subordinate roles, as mothers and child bearers.

In his essay on Plato and women, French scholar Luc Brisson writes:

‘For Plato, the fact of being of the male or female sex has no more relevance for the attribution of such-and-such a task than does the fact of having lots of hair or of being bald.’

Plato, applying his own version of the fact/value distinction, distinguishes between the woman’s body and the woman’s soul/mind just as he applies the same distinction to the bodies and souls of males. Plato’s Dualism, a metaphysical doctrine based on sexual equality and anti-reductionism, is also politically radical. Plato’s vision of women was, as Brisson writes, a “merciless criticism of Athenian citizenship, which took only men, that is, males, into consideration.”

Instead, in an ideal state women and men would be equal. A woman who demonstrates the values of courage – an attribute of the soul – is equally qualified to be a “guardian” (warrior) in Plato’s hypothetical state on par with a man who demonstrates the same values. The biological facts about a woman’s body are separate from her attributes of courage and valor, and indeed have no relevance to her ability to assume a warrior’s duties. As for de Beauvoir, so for Plato: biology is not destiny.

In the Republic, Plato asserts:

‘But if it’s apparent that they differ only in this respect, that the females bear children while the males beget them, we’ll say that there has been no kind of proof that women are different from men with respect to what we’re talking about, and we’ll continue to believe that our guardians and their wives must have the same way of life.’ (Rep. V, 454d-e, transl. Grube rev. by Reeve).

Women are likewise intellectually equal to men. Because philosopher-leaders are chosen amongst the guardians as a function of the ability of their soul to devote itself to higher studies, it follows that women will have access to the same course of studies described in Book VI of the Republic, inclusive of  mathematics and dialectic, taught to male philosopher-leaders. Nor was this mere theory on the part of Plato. Diogenes cites the fact that Plato admitted women to his own school for philosophers, the Academy.

How these Arguments Showcase Philosophy’s Strengths

Rigorous objectivity, logical precision, commitment to knowledge (contra public opinion), rejection of partisanship, and a willingness to ‘follow the argument’ (both logical and empirical) are fundamental skills used in the philosopher’s workshop.  And they are all showcased in Simone de Beauvoir’s and Plato’s arguments. Both vigorously follow their arguments by using reason to question conventional opinions of their day about the putative inferiority of women in order to find real knowledge that refutes received prejudices. Further, they refuse to show partisanship toward other (bad) arguments simply because they were offered by earlier prestigious philosophers. De Beauvoir strongly criticized the male prejudices that crept into Aristotle’s discussion of women as mere passive ‘matter’, while Plato’s defense of the equality of women directly opposed philosopher Pythagoras’ sexist metaphysical claims that a “bad principle …created chaos, darkness, and women” in comparison to man created by a “good principle.”(Nor was Plato a partisan supporter of the sarcastic, sexist Athenian ‘good old boy’ political network of his day).

Philosophy’s historic contribution to changing the conversation about the rights and status of women is directly linked to its ability to find knowledge by framing objective arguments based on logic and facts unbiased by irrational opinion. Where philosophy has failed women it is not the fault of its basic core strengths, but of regrettable sexist prejudices which have historically infiltrated philosophy as they have other modes of inquiries such as science and literature.

Thomas White is a Wiley-Blackwell journal author, and previous contributor to Undercurrent Philosophy, Aeon, The Philosopher’s Eye, and other journals. He is also  a poet and speculative fiction writer whose work has appeared in print and online in Australia, Canada, United States, and Great Britain. 

How about you, do you think philosophy has made a positive contribution to the rights of women and men?

'The Ship of Fools', Hieronymus Bosch

Bad Publicity

“The right to free speech conceived as a positive ideal, rather than as a necessity granted because one fears the consequences of refusing it, presumes a constituency in which real debate is possible. That constituency cannot, therefore, be composed of lunatics.”

Raimond Gaita

The broad remit of this project is public philosophy. At the risk of self-parody, ‘public philosophy’ is a linguistically ambiguous description. On the one hand, there is a desire to cast open the doors of the shady offices and seminar rooms where philosophy is conducted in its raw form. In this sense, it represents the desire to expose abstract professional philosophy, and its terse and formal language, to a general (and sceptical) audience.

In reality, what is signified is a diluted form; public philosophy as a direct analogue of public science. Public science, as conducted by Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Jim Al-Khalili and others, is comprehensively divorced from academic and professional science. The general assumption is that the public in general have neither the interest nor the aptitude for data harvesting and manipulation as a craft, nor algebraic formulations as an art.

Though plausible, this assumption does little to address the problem. Thus, ‘public anything’ comes to signify the stupefied, dumbed-down and accessible, and a great many other patronising ascriptions. This attitude breeds contempt for a consumer class, tolerated and included only because their sufferance, and money, is necessary for the continuation of worthy academic endeavour.

The lunatics Gaita describes are not mundane cranks and trolls, visible all over the underbelly of the internet. Such marginal characters, or simulations of them, are unavoidable. Instead, they are that class of participant in the public sphere who has a fleeting and flimsy relationship with recognisable reality. Anti-vaxxers. Holocaust deniers. Truthers of all stripes. Those who have consciously rejected any common normative framework within which to coexist with their peers, and whose narratives and discourses are unrecognisable to their political community.

Thus, the three classes of agent in the public sphere are revealed, not as they exist, but as each perceives the other to exist. The first is the Intellectual Elite, whose hegemony of wealth and power is now sufficiently sociologically established as to be a fact independent of Marxist or Materialist analysis. The second is the body of the political community, broadly held in contempt as a Lumpenproletariat, with a diminished intellectual appetite and aptitude, and a miniscule attention span. The third is the Other; terrorists, trolls, truthers, the people who swarm round your car at six thirty in the morning at a car boot sale. Lunatics, with whom no general relations are describable or conceivable.

How, then, did relations between the three groups become so fractious and fraught with angst and mistrust? How did a general condition of mendacity bordering on outright hostility come to exist between them? Indeed, is this condition materially novel or different, or is such a supposition merely anchored in some anachronistic sehnsucht or Hiraeth for an idealised past that never was?

One kind of answer, peculiarly American in disposition, holds that the consumer class are blameless victims of the deliberate depoliticisation of that which is Public. Huntington, Fukuyama and Putnam may diverge politically (within the narrow realm of acceptable divergence in American politics), but all broadly agree that individualism, the demands of international capital and collective political participation are mutually exclusive to some degree.

Commercial interests reject political risk, and antagonism creates political risk. Thus, by colonising lobbying groups and news media in sympathetic private hands, two political visions become possible: the general body of the populace can be excluded from the public, kept uninformed and powerless in a narrative stream of seemingly unrelated and inexplicable events, or participation in the political and the public can be narrowed to internet polls and radio phone-ins, allowing critical voices to disseminate and the elite to conduct the business of governance (or governance-as-business) in relative peace.

A European perspective, particularly after Jurgen Habermas’ noted contribution to the definition of the public, finds the same consumer class both active and culpable in its own cultural evisceration. An old quip has it that at the opening night of BeaumarchaisLe Mariage de Figaro, Robespierre was sat in the front row taking notes on its hostile satire of the aristocracy. The historical reality is that such satires were an ever-present facet of even the most provincial theatrical productions, and widely dissected in salons, town squares and letters for a good while afterwards.

Yet, as Baudrillard observed, no longer. The political spheres of the West are now characterised by furtiveness and reclusion; idiots in a shadowy Idiocracy (a word which deserves to transcend its common misuse as merely corrupt democracy, and mean only ‘governance by self-interest’). The sharing of critical insight has been subsumed by the trading of crude and unformed opinion. Political elites, unable to communicate with the constituency in a complex way are thus reduced to the reflection of such opinions wherever they congregate in politically useful numbers. Memes, slogans, soundbites and engineered publicity stunts become the only methodology for simulating political representation.

What is most interesting in this latter is that the lunatics, the marginalised Other, are the only rational participants. If the political and public is a mere simulation of political community, deliberate and conscious reclusion or outright rebellion are the only rational reactions.

What should be immediately apparent is that whichever of these two analyses is preferred, there are no longer any incentives to play by the rules of the political game, and few disadvantages to breaking them. The exercise becomes one of apportioning blame in an attempt to provoke contrition and resolution on the part of the culpable agent. In the meantime, political, financial and intellectual elites have both the opportunity to lie and manipulate without consequence, and an audience eager to be lied to.

Alternative Fakten” has just been named “non-word of the year” by an independent German panel, who called it for what it is; a euphemism for reckless lying. Thirty years ago, the euphemism of choice was Sir Robert Armstrong’s “economical with the truth”, and later, the overused “spin” of the Blair years. What has changed in that time is that politicians no longer lie to the press, but now let the press lie on their behalf in exchange for access and favour. Where previously the aim of the exercise was to manipulate public sentiment, the object now is to disperse public sentiment, to avert sustained censure and divert public scrutiny. Whether the lie is believed, or indeed believable, is no longer salient.

The third theoretical case is concerned with endings. It is an easy conclusion to come to in the present circumstances that something is drawing to a close. The theorists of the Alt-Right increasingly suggest the age of globalisation and multiculturalism. Those on the Left see the prophesied collapse of capitalism and the Bourgeois state. A philosophical centrist might see the preconditions for revolution, the irascible unrest that will finally express itself in a spontaneous demotic impulse.

It is tempting to ask how the public sphere can be repaired. The answers are straightforward. Firstly, private commercial interests are unhealthily embedded in everything the public as an ideal represents, from politics as praxis to the normative framework of society. This state extends far beyond mundane qualms about neo-liberalism or commercialism, and to the core of questions about the compatibility of doctrinal individualism and the demands of collective action.

By way of example, recent events in Catalonia are either cast as an oppressed nation against a tyrannical authoritarian power, or a legitimate sovereign government against a self-serving Bourgeois land-grab. Whichever perspective an interested party took, sufficient media reflecting that perspective was made available. While public opinion waits on the establishment of an authoritative series of facts, a great many events can go unnoticed.

Of course, those two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. A government in Barcelona could be equally as corrupt and self-interested as one in Madrid, given time and opportunity. Private interests change the objectives of the game, and in the process, introduce good reasons to break the rules. In so doing, they reduce the participants to lunatics, increasingly divergent from reality. Such a description is equally apposite for Paul Dacre, Katie Hopkins, Boris Johnson and Rupert Murdoch, yet no mechanism for reducing or removing their influence exists.

This is because freedom of speech is not conceived as a positive ideal in representative democracy; the right to participate is granted solely as a concession, a ward against insurrection, at a minimally sufficient level. As Pericles put it, “one who has no business in the Assembly we do not regard as harmless but useless.” Representative democracy is designed to exclude the public, to reduce their participation to expressions of preference, rare and vague.

Sadly, the complexity of the political sphere has increased as well. Thus, whilst it is tempting to seek to increase the quantity of democracy in the public sphere, the quality achieved by doing so will not noticeably improve. Only scaling back the influence of private interest can reintroduce reliable and verifiable information to the public sphere.

This can be done in a number of ways; a regulatory body with the power to impose fines as originally suggested by the Leveson Report, the mandatory labelling of news media that contain editorials as “Entertainment” (as Bevan remarked, “I read the newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.”) and so on. Mo Udall famously quipped about an interminable Congressional Hearing in the United States, “everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.” The British attitude was reflected by Clement Attlee, when he repeated this old joke, “”Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.” An uncluttered, professional and truly public sphere is as overdue as truly public science and philosophy; reducing the unnecessary quotient of patronising, misleading and untrue background noise can only be positive.

Secondly, societal atomism (the fragmentation of society into ever smaller and more local groups, terminating at the disinterested individual) is at a politically dysfunctional level. That is less a statement of the problem than a normative fact worthy of discussion in the political community. If the public are socially content in disparate and individual pursuits then it is majoritarian representative democracy that will have to go, a prospect that needn’t be as horrifying as is frequently suggested. Indeed, the European Union functions as a relatively benign and transparent technocracy yet still manages a democratic deficit comparable to the bicameral Parliament of the United Kingdom. Otherwise, the United Kingdom could always be disincorporated into the former territories of which it is currently comprised.

If, on the other hand, there is a general recognition that “public opinion” should signify more than the individual opinions, arrived at separately and without discussion, of each member of the political community, then what is required is public space. In some cases, as a great number of urban renewal schemes have dogmatically recognised, these will be physical. In others, they will be conceptual. One thing is certain; the current system of government and predominant mode of life are no longer compatible; the majority cannot be silent any longer.

Lastly, there is the Other. From the fringes of the Far Right and Flat Earthers to the core of the crypto-fascism of Trump, Le Pen and Farage, it must be recognised that there is no explicit right to free speech extended to those whose purpose is to distort, deny or distract from fact. Not even in the unambiguous statement of the Strasbourg Court that the right to freedom of expression under Art. 10 of the European Convention extends to ideas “that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population” is that right regarded as unqualified.

What exists is a deficiency in enforcement and not a deficiency in legislation. As recent cases regarding sexual harassment (in many forms) demonstrate, a class of wrongful action has been facilitated by technology which often falls short of being criminal, yet cannot be economically pursued under appropriate civil law. An independent appellate tribunal for this category would go some way to reacquainting those who recklessly disseminate falsehoods into the public sphere with the consequences of doing so.

For example, the publication of fake news could be heard under the tort of Deceit. Respondents would almost certainly prefer to remain anonymous than to defend themselves, and in the main, be found against in their absence. Thereafter, the question of how to avoid general surveillance yet remove the anonymity on offer through the internet is difficult to answer, but awards for damages outstanding, in sufficient amounts, should be enough to deter the hobbyist troll, and leave only the determined agitator. From that point, a discussion can begin about whether, in conjunction with other measures, the lunatic Other can be regarded as a minor inconvenience, or still constitutes a threat necessitating more severe restrictive action.

It is a cliché of marketing that there is no such thing as bad publicity. This structural lie serves to legitimise coercive selling tactics under the guise of information. It creates publicity of the worst kind, transient simulacra of an ideal that was never realised; the illusion of deliberation and determination that is at least as oppressive as their absence. The reclusion of the public as an entity, and the annexation of the public as a conceptual space, have cast long shadows over the public sphere. Whether those shadows are of a neo-liberal elite tightening their grip on power, a silent majority unwilling or unable to participate, a divisive clade of outcasts seeking to undermine notional unity or some combination of all three is not clear.

What is clear is that a constituency where real debate is possible is the precursor to any political culture. Bevan’s personal motto was “This is my truth, now tell me yours.” In the present circumstances, the title of the Manic Street Preacher’s sixth album, ‘Know Your Enemy’, is more appropriate.


1240208_642109192489508_941271857_nRobin Hill has a First in Philosophy, Politics and Law from Swansea University. He often considers biographies to be a positive inversion of Aristotle’s ad hominem fallacy, and the first step on the road to sophistry



Further Reading:

Baudrillard, J., In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities

Curtis, A., The Power of Nightmares

Brown, R. H., “Social Science and the Poetics of Public Truth”

'Franz Fühmann - At the Burning Abyss', Daniel Fraser

The light-well: a poet[hic!] encounter

Towards the end of Franz Fühmann’s astonishing account of his life’s meetings with the poetry of Georg Trakl, At the Burning Abyss, there appears a passage from the diaries of – soldier and contemporary of Trakl’s – Karl Röck in which the latter describes an encounter with the drunken poet. My own encounter with this passage stopped my reading in its tracks. The section of the diary which produced the effect reads as follows:

Tues, 20 Aug. at MAX (borrowed 30 crowns from Fi for evening with Kr) [. . .] Evening. Theresia; Trakl comes drunk, screaming like a child [. . .] (Spitting); talk of the dying light bulb in the light well.

Those final two words ‘light well’ sent spiders skittering across my skin. This second-hand recount of an inebriated utterance struck something within. The cause of this rupture being that, over a decade earlier, ‘Light well’ had been the title I had given to a poem, a piece of juvenile doggerel, one of my first forays into poetry (forays best forgotten). Yet – as is often the case with these adolescent outpourings of feeling – one which at the time burned inside me like a black fire: a fire that, by this aleatory occurrence, was suddenly rekindled.

The light-well in my poem was ‘dampening’, a ‘shell of light and striated shadow’, caused by sun rays shining through a glass. The poem was, inevitably, about drink. The glass is one that has been filled with whiskey. It is not without personal import: alcohol is the substance that, in one manner or another, has consumed many members of my immediate family, my close friends and which has, on several occasions, come close to doing the same to me. Alcohol is of course also the substance which Fühmann repeatedly turned to in his own life and which is tied to Trakl due to his renown, amongst his soldiering compatriots, for being able to imbibe vast quantities.

The light well lit up a luminous liquid, an insignificant accident was suddenly aglow with meaning.

What has happened in this encounter?

Part of its emotional impact, undoubtedly, relates to the misty-eyed sentimentality of the drunk, a flush of feeling for dark youth and inebriated community. But can something more productive than a meeting of un-anonymous alcoholics be drawn from it?

The unearthing of this piece of debris, whose raw materials comprise the act of reading and the surging force of involuntary memory, creates a web of relations between writing and life, language and history, that glitter all at once in hieroglyphic patterns that defy interpretation. The inscription of writing into life’s body is dizzying, and often painful, blurring the senses around a gap, a lack that opens up like a thirst for something that cannot be quenched, for which no tonic exists. It can be hard, or impossible, to articulate: speech becomes slurred or falls wearily into befuddled silence.


‘Poplars, June 2017’ by Daniel Fraser

The image of the diary entry, framed by the concentric textual and temporal layers that distance it from the received present, forges a space across which a mystical spark of the present may dart. The dissolution and re-fusing of biographies happens in a moment, and the explosion blasts out fragments and scattered splinters from the continuum of history, tying each of them together in their chaotic separation. This moment of intoxication illuminates the absent years, crossing textual forms – a soldier’s diary, a collection of poems, a memoir through which those two are inflected – arriving at a moment of reading: an encounter between a text and the natural history of a human life.

The discomforting effect, more than a simple paean for lost time, of this contingent de- and re- contextualisation is caused by a reckoning in the process of history between consciousness and nature, that is, of the alienated consciousness on its eternal search for the illumination of meaning and the reality of death (as impersonal natural fact) that both truncates this search and calls any semblance of meaning into question. History here reveals its essential utopian character, what Peter Osborne calls the ‘trans-generational unity of the human’, and its constructed conceptual make-up: that history is formed from materials that have been severed from individual subjectivities, at as such is a conceptual practice grounded in the recognition of death.

The absent presence of disintegration exposed by the encounter with the image is rendered all the more inflammable by the presence of alcohol, the literary substance of excess, memory loss and dissolution. A literary device that glints in the glass of Rhys’s early novels, that dances on the streets under Lowry’s volcano, and hides in Highsmith’s shadows, lean and menacing, alcohol washes words with contingency and tempts annihilation. As one of the peasants in Appelfeld’s The Healer, waiting for a train amid the snowdrifts, remarks:

“A man comes down here, gets drunk, and forgets himself for a moment. A man’s got to forget himself, right? Without forgetfulness there’s no hope for revival…A man comes down here, takes out his little flask, and oblivion descends upon him…That’s fine. Don’t look down your nose at that old secret of life.”

The well of light pulls time and reality down into it, re-shaping and reforming them in the crucible of memory, history and literature, so that an entirely new construction can be glimpsed, if only for a moment, before staggering and falling back down into the well, forgotten.

Somewhere in this incomplete accident, in the oscillation of utopia and death, writing forever lurks.

dan-white-cross-650kDaniel Fraser is a writer from West Yorkshire. His work has featured in the LA Review of Books, Gorse, the Quietus, Music and Literature, and 3AMMagazine among others.  He is an editor at and lives in London. Find him on Twitter @oubliette_mag.

Some examples of his work: wanderer within the wastes: on anselm kiefer’s walhalla, MICHEL LEIRIS’S NIGHTS AS DAY, DAYS AS NIGHT and A Static Form of Remembrance.

How about you, dear reader, do you have any thoughts on this philosophical reflection?

'The Birth of Venus', Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre

Aesthetic And Moral Education

‘Aesthetic’ is a vague and frustrating term with a profligate and confused history.  During the Enlightenment, aesthetic was employed as a synonym for ‘beauty’, which was understood as taking many apparently unrelated forms, from the natural world to gardens to art to interior decorating and even mathematics.  In the last two hundred years, aesthetic has most frequently been conflated with ‘artistic’ and philosophical aesthetics understood as sharing the same subject matter as art criticism.  Both of these conceptions are too restrictive when it comes to the contemporary discipline and Bence Nanay offers a refreshingly simple definition in Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception when he states that aesthetics is ‘about ways of perceiving the world that are really rewarding and special.’  Nanay distinguishes the particular type of perception involved as FODP – focused on objects but distributed amongst the properties of those objects – providing a contemporary take on Immanuel Kant’s famous definition of aesthetic judgement in terms of disinterested pleasure.  Disinterest was associated with attending to an object as an end rather than a means and pleasure with the value of attending to the object in such a manner.  Combining Nanay’s two characterisations, we have the aesthetic as primarily a kind of attention that is purposeless, i.e. useless without being worthless.  ‘Aesthetic education’ has suffered as much if not more than ‘aesthetic’ when it comes to multiplicity of meanings and inconsistency of usage.  Aesthetic education has been employed as a synonym for a liberal arts education, to mean education in or through the arts, and as a defence of the role of either the arts, the humanities, or both within the education system.  Its philosophical use is, however, precise: the tradition of aesthetic education does not identify an education in aesthetics, but a moral or ethical education by aesthetic means.

The thesis originates, like so much else in value theory, with Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury.  Shaftesbury’s work was highly original but notoriously unsystematic and he argued that aesthetic taste and art were necessary conditions for the flourishing of character and society respectively.  Typically, Shaftesbury offered little evidence for this claim and it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the theory was popularised.  In his On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters, Friedrich Schiller drew on Kant’s Third Critique to argue for the significance of the ‘instinct of play’ in removing the barrier that prevented the elevation of human being from the sensual and savage to the rational and moral.  More significantly, beauty had political implications because the harmony that an aesthetic education produced in the individual was replicated at the level of the state, which blended individual freedom and social justice.  One could say that aesthetic means were a sufficient condition for a moral or political education for Schiller, but unfortunately history presents numerous counterexamples of civilizations where beauty was revered without respect for human rights.


Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third Early of Shaftesbury

Schiller’s Letters were nonetheless popular among artists, critics, and philosophers and aesthetic education was adopted by public moralists such as John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century and cultural critics such as Walter Benjamin and F.R. Leavis in the twentieth century.  The tradition was revitalised in the last decade of the twentieth century, following the posthumous revelation that literary theorist Paul de Man had collaborated with the National Socialist authorities in Belgium during the war, and the subsequent ethical turn in criticism was pioneered by Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralism, Richard Rorty’s pragmatism, and Martha Nussbaum’s Aristotelianism.  Nussbaum and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a former student of De Man’s, have advanced the most comprehensive contemporary theories of aesthetic education.

Nussbaum’s version, which is set out most clearly in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, is based on her identification of a genre of realist novels that includes (but is not restricted to) the work of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Richard Wright.  In these novels, the intimacy of the relation between narrative form and moral content is such that ‘concern for the disadvantaged is built into the literary experience’.  Nussbaum is extremely ambitious and proposes not only a moral education by aesthetic means, but also a political education, using Dickens’ Hard Times as an example of a novel that promotes liberal democracy on a necessary rather than contingent basis.  For Spivak, aesthetic education is a theme (rather than an explicit theory) that links the twenty-five essays collected in An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization.  She follows Schiller in claiming that aesthetic education can remove the barriers to self-actualisation and specifies these as gender and class prejudices that have been internalised by their victims.  Spivak defines aesthetic education as ‘training the imagination for epistemological performance’, identifying the imagination as the bridge between the aesthetic and the ethical.  Drawing on Derrida’s hyperbolic ethics, she argues that ethical situations are characteristically impossible – i.e., all moral choices are moral dilemmas – and that literature provides access to the imaginative experience of the impossible.  In virtue of the shared feature of impossibility, aesthetic practice produces both aesthetic and ethical expertise.

Both Nussbaum and Spivak regard aesthetic experience – the experience of paying aesthetic attention to literary works – as an imaginative exercise that develops ethical sensibility and thus argue for a moral education by aesthetic means.  Unfortunately, each thesis is flawed: Nussbaum restricts her claim to a very narrow selection of novels and admits that they must be read sympathetically in the first instance; Spivak’s theory is more compelling, but relies on the adoption of a radical reconception of ethical responsibility that many will be resist.  Perhaps more importantly in the age of quantification, monetisation, and profit-seeking against which Nussbaum and Spivak rail in their respective ways, there is no empirical evidence for the effects of aesthetic experience on ethical sensibility.  The notion is nonetheless fascinating and affords philosophers, theorists, and psychologists a perfect opportunity for collaboration.




'Truth Bringing Republic and Abundance', Nicolas de Courteille

No News Is Good News

The reporting of current affairs is a strange place at present. Re-reading John Humphrys’ brief revisiting of the peculiarly mundane manner in which a well-respected global expert was driven to suicide in a fashion that required a Government inquiry to verify that the Government, or at least the quasi-official element of the executive, hadn’t been complicit in Manslaughter, was a timely reminder of what real news looks like.

The full tale begins in 1984, with Margaret Thatcher’s grilling at the hands of a member of the public on a live phone-in, over the sinking of the General Belgrano. Though the media had never been trusted by elite politicians, the difference between the treatment Thatcher received that night and that given to Wilson or MacMillan was striking. Not that this was a matter of editorial intent, merely that, as Humphrys describes, the age of the talented amateur was coming to an end, unable to flourish in a world of increasingly open cynicism and I hostility.

Some years later, and it was Humphrys centre stage again, this time locking horns with the then Chancellor Ken Clarke. Throughout the 1980s, a growing trend towards radical competitiveness in the daily print press marked an increasingly politicised atmosphere in previously generally aloof coverage. Thatcher, despite the odd setback, fared significantly better in the new regime than her immediate opposition. Thatcher was satirised viciously by “Alternative Comedy”, but Kinnock was skewered daily by the press.

That treatment and the experience of the marginalisation of the Left played a significant role in the political maturity of Tony Blair, who desired to ape Thatcher’s cross-party appeal and her capacity to extract her opponents’ embittered respect, whilst learning from Kinnock’s experience of a newly confrontational media. In the meantime, Jeremy Paxman attained immortality for an inspired attempt to fill broadcast time by damaging the then Home Secretary Michael Howard’s career irreparably.

What followed were the all too memorable political and informatic command and control mechanisms employed by Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell. The list of misdemeanours and artifices promulgated by the two range from the bizarre to the unforgivable, but ultimately would culminate in the systematic ineptitude that saw Dr. David Kelly revealed to the press and abandoned by the political custodians of his future. Again, it was Humphrys at the cutting edge, though this time a greater share of the blame attached to a mildly shambolic freelancer called Andrew Gilligan, who sleepily lit the fuse that morning on a weapon of mass destruction of a far subtler kind than he alleged Alistair Campbell to have imagined in Iraq.

no-newsBy Gabriel Cabral

Now, the press handler is ever-present, even for the most minor and unremarkable politicians. The result is that a genuinely newsworthy event in everyday politics is an extremely rare event. Indeed, as the larger media outlets and those who excel at the delivery of a stage managed narrative shadow-box at each other, each skilled in the art of interrogation and asymmetric counter-intelligence actions, so it even becomes impossible to tell how and if an event actually occurred. Events such as Nigel Farage’s first resignation, Jeremy Corbyn’s sit-in on a train or any number of public faux-pas by Boris Johnson demonstrate that it is no longer just the occurrence of the event that can be managed, but even the perception of the motive behind the event. Misinform to disinform, disseminate to dissimilate. After all, if the public literally cannot believe what they see and what they read, then they and the press are thoroughly neutralised the in the narrative wars of political capital and ideologies.

The growing difficulty for that strategy, as the President-elect recently discovered, is that print media is a dying art. Online competition, loss of readership, loss of relevance and a lack of budgetary flexibility in elite recruitment have all taken the life out of the predominant means of public communication of the preceding two centuries. The sensationalisation of  narratives and development of distasteful and illegal methods to propagate attention-grabbing headlines have arrested the fatal slide in customer numbers, but largely at the further expense of the print medium’s  dwindling credibility and authority. In their stead have come rafts of largely unaccountable and anonymous online sources that are, due to their very nature, self-sustaining and independent. A truly free press, including the transnational avoidance of censorship and Libel, has turned out to be far more entertaining, if not any more reliable.

One of the consequences of the emergence of the sniffily named “Alt-Media” is that high calibre traditional journalists, the ones with a deft touch for acquiring and manipulating contacts and a nose for a story, are now increasingly to be found in unlikely sources, since they recognise that sharing a platform with a Russian-funded news farm in eastern Europe would somewhat reduce their credibility. Hence these revelations surrounding Donald Trump being brought to light in a delightfully unsophisticated way by Buzzfeed, and this rather insightful observation on modern political media strategy being made by the successor to Newsround. Meanwhile, every traditional media outlet simply sat on the information waiting for events to force their hands, a sign of their own fixation with presentation strategies and maximal effect.

Political lying is nothing new. Systematic political lying for the advancement of a political ideology is, however, and far removed from mere rhetorical or demagogic propaganda in that one of its unforeseen consequences has been the systematic dismantling of the credibility of the press, who have been reduced to Pravda mimics, manipulable bystanders and peripheral cranks by the thorough evisceration of their content of any meaning or reliability. That contest, conducted clandestinely in the public sphere for the last two decades, characterised and defined the era of Post-Truth; a landscape where truth-value and actual/factual content, and the credibility and reliability of the distributors of it became entirely secondary to the game of positioning, both economic and political.

The era that has just begun, in which the public sphere is an internecine web of private wars conducted solely for political or economic gains by entirely private interests and wholly without the slightest interest in primary or reliable fact, would better be described as Anti-Truth. After all, somebody, be it a London based industrial espionage consultant, his political principals, the sources for his information, the SVR or Donald Trump, is unashamedly lying. The narrative, however, is primarily engaged with the ramifications for Trump’s media management strategy and public persona, and secondarily, if and when this video or a fake of it will make its debut on 4chan. It seems that the obvious conclusion, that the public sphere is now ethically and informationally compromised beyond all use, is either going unnoticed or has been deemed irrelevant.

What you are thus clicking on, watching, reading and sharing is redundant. In the anti-factual world, the only good news is no news.
1240208_642109192489508_941271857_nRobin Hill has a First in Philosophy, Politics and Law from Swansea University. He often considers biographies to be a positive inversion of Aristotle’s ad hominem fallacy, and the first step on the road to sophistry



Further Reading:

The Rise of Political Lying, Peter Oborne

Truth in the Public Sphere, Jason Hannan

“Data driven journalism in the post-truth public sphere”, Nicolas Kayser-Bril



Europride / Gay Pride in London 2006, photos from Trafalgar Square. By Fæ.

Is Pride Enough?

Is Pride Enough? A critical account of 2017’s Brighton Pride.

Walking through Preston Park the morning after Brighton Pride, I found a sign: “The first Pride was a riot”.

2017’s Pride, on Saturday 5th August, was not anything like a riot. There was nothing confrontational  about it. But a lack of confrontation doesn’t only mean an enjoyable, peaceful experience for everyone. It also means passive acceptance, a void of critical rebellion against homophobia, without meaningful and active pursuit of change.

In Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009), Fisher says our sense of rebellion – our desire to break the bonds that displease us – is placated by investing in a concept of objective change. If I feel disappointed by society’s inability to house every single person, rather than offering my time and energy to volunteer for a homeless shelter, I simply invest in a charity, giving them, say, £10 a month. The revolutionary within me is appeased, the rest of society feels that my actions have helped, whilst the capitalist machine that consumes the money from the underclass  continues to keep millions hungry on the streets.

Rather than really do anything, we just offer flimsy words of futile optimism. “Well done”, “It’ll all be fine”, “This is so lovely!”.

And at Pride it was hard to find anyone who was actually doing anything to push for real change. When I asked how Pride was changing perceptions of LGBTQ people in society, one man looked around the street (populated mostly by young, good-looking straight people drinking beer), and said, ‘Well, look how much fun everyone’s having!’

A young woman, also on a street of pretty young people, replied, ‘We’re changing by being together! Everyone is together today!’

But everyone was not together. The people in Brighton that day were together, but not everyone. The bigots had left. That isn’t unity.

People had fun. People laughed, danced, drank. Nobody rioted. You don’t riot at Pride, not anymore. People were not angry about an entire culture that expressly beat and silence anything and anyone different.

Rather than any fundamental urge to change the wrongs of the system, there was a constant but  vague sense of optimism. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher discusses Adam Curtis’ comments on the culture of “hugs and kisses”:

Hugs and kisses come from feel-good social programmes that do nothing over and above making people feel momentarily able to live another day of mechanical and abstract capitalist production, making money for someone else, whilst imagining that society is all on their side. After all, the people that contribute to these programmes are so friendly and always so good.

Hugs and kisses come from positive algorithms in online advertising that convince people the whole world is on their side.

You are hugged and kissed all over. It feels so good to be loved. Nobody feeling that universal love wants to riot. So there was no riot at Pride that day.

This love perpetuates that superficial unity, if only for a day. In our private lives, we feel united: the people on TV smile at us, the people on our social media feeds agree with us, the simulacra of the screen keeps us separated from the danger on the news. We are loved. We all believe we are capable and independent, strong. No one will drag us down from that direct ray of simulated love.

Why would you ever want to rebel against love? You are constantly praised for being who you are; you belong to the system, you are in a more perfect union, you are uniquely necessary to the system.

If you want a semblance of “LGBTQ equality” at Pride, if you do anything more than participate in this perfect union, if you dare think about a riot, then your “hugs and kisses” will crumble into dust. This facade  only works if everyone believes they are outwardly united, but inwardly, deep inside, you know the secret truth: you are secretly so special that pride is for you. To turn away from Pride would be to try to actively, violently, change anything. And we can’t have a riot at Pride. Nobody likes a riot.

So the only way to rebel is to invest in the system of hugs and kisses, to outsource alternative opinions to things outside the supposed unity of people. To things like businesses, charities, newspapers. If you read The Guardian and they support Pride then they have done something, ergo you’ve done something by reading The Guardian. This is advocacy by proxy, this is fight for LGBTQ rights by commercialization.,_(1974)_(7454510558).jpg
Gay Pride March  (1974)

At Sainsbury’s supermarkets in Brighton they had banners hanging in their windows reading “Sainsbury’s loves Pride”. In estate agents’ windows on Lewes Road signs said “We wish you all a happy Pride”. Once a riot – what once pushed for real political and social change – 2017’s Pride weekend was represented by capitalist investment.

The message is: “If you buy things at Sainsbury’s, if you come to this estate agency, you are helping the LGBTQ community.”

That is a lie.

As Jarett Kobek writes in his 2017 novel I Hate the Internet, ‘Their social activism occurred on mechanics owned by the Patriarchy. Their social activism occurred on platforms designed for the sole purpose of advertising.’

People bought glitter. People bought fishnet tights. People bought beer with the word ‘pride’ in the title. People bought sunglasses. People bought pink clothes. People bought rainbow flags. People bought acceptance. People displayed the singular neoliberal self and its superior morality, in the chronic craze of capitalism, to show  they were each unique.

To celebrate this as an end is to cheer the drinking games of heterosexual capitalists with their faces covered in glitter and an adamant pride in how liberal and free they are for attending Pride. This was worth all the LGBTQ people who have ever been beaten, hated, spat at, murdered. All the LGBTQ people who have ever pushed against the boundaries of the system, wanting only to live. For this.

There is a joke in Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel The Sellout: ‘I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own faeces rationalizing that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is’.

In the same vein, I seriously doubt that any LGBTQ rights campaigner would see this esoteric party as evidence of liberated progress.

The running theme of Pride runs as follows: every LGBTQ person in the city of Brighton must spend the entire year waiting for the one summer weekend. Based on choices they never made,  picked out of the darkness for something innate and natural in them, they are told to run into the streets in fancy dress and joyfully applaud their own alienation from society, affirming that they are just different, unique, that all they can offer to the world is endless happiness and party-pleasing excitement.

Pride is not only about unity. It is also about self-expression, self-liberation, self-acceptance. Just pull out your credit card. Pride is about belonging to the capitalist machine. Pride is the inevitable co-option of the riot, the neoliberal individualization of the special, unique self.

Pride was once a riot. Now it is a piss-up for self-expression. Nobody needs to fight against homophobia and transphobia. Why? They danced, had a few drinks on a rainy Saturday. Problem solved. Each individual believes they are glorified by the gods of gayness. They expressed their unique self better than the others, buying the same glitter, the same tights, the same beer, clothes, sunglasses. Each individual feels so good: they achieved something. They have invested their money and time in a  counter-culture movement of liberation, can’t you see it from the poster in the window of Sainsbury’s?

But that is a lie: they fed the capitalist machine.

People feel emboldened when they leave Pride. They feel united, accepted. But only amongst people who were already convinced. They are only being hugged and kissed more and more by the same uncritical shortsightedness: acceptance by people who already accepted. While at Pride, I met a woman from Brighton whose overtly homophobic boss goes on holiday to London for that weekend every year.

Pride began as a riot. Pride began as an active push towards change. It didn’t work. Society is still, in numerous ways, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted and backwards. A special day of drinking and dancing with people who are more proud of their appearance of liberal generosity, a day when there are no bigots in Brighton, a day when all the storefronts put up posters, is not a productive means of changing anything. The dances stop, the glitter comes off, the posters come down out of the windows, the bigots come back to Brighton. That day of Pride was complacency.

I remember that sign I saw in Preston Park, and now I see: we need to do something.

Elliot Mason

Elliot C. Mason is a writer and a student of literature and linguistics.




Further Reading:

Brendan Sibley’s article on Deleuze and violence in British and American novels:

STRIKE! magazine(

A very interesting book on these themes is ‘Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’, by Nick Srnieck and Alex Williams, published in 2015.

Deleuze, repeated...

A Deleuzian Response to Jameson’s Raymond Chandler

1. Jameson vs Chandler:

In Real Qualities of the Microcosm: Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles, USA, by Frederic Jameson, the author draws a comparison between the styles and content of American and English literature. He explains that the detective novel is used to enable a certain treatment of urban life in the US during the Twentieth Century. Particularly focusing on commodity fetishism, human encounters and the production of space. His thesis is that Chandler’s writing, in particular his approach to style exhibits a specific capacity of this genre to approach ‘fragmentary perceptions which are by some formal paradox somehow inaccessible to serious literature’. This inaccessibility of fragmentary perception comes about through the tendency of serious literature, such as he sees in Joyce, for example, to re-centre its narrative around the fragment, thus transforming it into a structure, inadvertently and arbitrarily giving meaning to the meaningless. In contrast to this, the merit of the detective novel is said to be its capacity to maintain the fragment in its original, raw, meaningless state. Something glimpsed fleetingly at the edges of a scenario.

Fragments of other narratives surround the journey of the protagonist like butterflies, calling the attention of both the reader and narrator into constant tangents:

‘the stained carpets, the sand-filled spittoons, the poorly shutting glass doors, all testifying to the shabby anonymity of a meeting place…of the neglected places of collective living that fill up the interstices between the privileged compartments of middle-class living.’

For Jameson, it seems, these particles of texture hint at a narrative that has the capacity to tie together the socio-political, the economic and the psychological. However, the fault he finds with ‘serious’ literature is exactly its tendency to unravel around fragmentary perceptions and turn them into narrative events themselves. The ‘profound truth’ of American life which is lost in such an involution appears to be a kind of kitsch realisation that these details may remain infinitely fruitful, and at the same time, ignorable. They are like mosquitos that feed on the organic substance of the primary cause, which, here, is the integrity of the subject itself:

‘the honesty of the detective can be understood as an organ of perception, a membrane which, irritated, serves to indicate in its sensitivity the nature of the world around it.’

He goes on to say that the origins of this figure are traceable in the advent of a professional police force, not as the design of crime-prevention, but as the real extrapolation of the state’s desire to render transparent its own interior and bring it under control; to divide and conquer. In the case of Raymond Chandler and the noir tradition in general, however, the private eye represents a radical atomisation of state power into the hands of individuals who become arbiters of a vigilante justice and enforcers of their own law by violence. He makes this point further down:

‘The local power apparatus is beyond appeal, in this other face of federalism; the rule of naked force and money is complete and undisguised by any embellishments of theory. In an eerie optical illusion, the jungle reappears in the suburbs.’

The implied shift from global to local perspective corresponds to the relocation of the centre of judgement, albeit temporarily, from the court-room to the suburban jungle. A passage which also traverses a wide range of arenas, mapping a psycho-social typography onto streets, bars, hotel rooms and many other locations through which we follow the ocular protagonist. Along this line, the maintenance of the evanescence of its many tangents requires some explanation. In every instance, the line must persist, somehow, as if through a windowed hall, glimpsing at every point something outside of itself, and yet without allowing itself to become thwarted.
 Stack of old books

‘Stack of Old Books’ by Marco Verch

2. Jameson vs Deleuze:

Jameson’s concern with the unique capacity of the detective novel to maintain this balance is caught up with his approach to literary aesthetics and the problem of language. To understand the scope of this claim we need to understand further the way in which the form, as he understands it, is implicated with the problem of self-conscious representation. The figure of the detective is somehow a correlate of the problematisation of the relations from which he emerges. When dialogue breaks down, violence is unleashed. This is the first event, usually preceding the commencement of the story.

The detective materialises at the scene of a crime in order to reconstruct the conflicted relationships through a historical narration. His role as a third party is crucial since he provides an external reference point, capable of ensuring a power balance among the two key figures he represents; the state and the individual; or more aptly, the perpetrator of a crime and the political-economy he or she has thrown into disarray. In order to construct his own account, however, a further referral is necessary, to something outside himself.

This is how space and the landscape are implicated in the narration of the crime. It is also here that the key to understanding the game and its problematic emerges. In each case the landscape is already informed by existing social relations, but it maintains a certain plasticity, yielding to the gestures of the protagonist as he attempts to recapture the mechanisms of perspective. The importance of the detective’s moral integrity underlies his need to persist with the investigation despite the many tantalising resolutions presented by those occupying their own scenarios as we move through the entire catalogue of social types and classes, from the bar-room to the street, to the jailhouse, to the city limits, to the mansion of a billionaire.

Jameson will go on to show how this struggle is itself reflected in the author’s use of language to reconstruct the imaginative landscape of real Los Angeles through pure stylistic arrangements and collage. What I want to pay specific attention to is a section of the text in which Jameson himself appears to engage in a similar technique. This time, with a view to the creation of his own evidence from scraps borrowed from the literary imagination of Europe and the US. He subsequently bolsters his own article’s philosophical weight, and at the same time falsifies one of his own claims; that the detective story alone ‘permits such pure stylistic experimentation’ through its distinct lack of ‘ideological content,…political or social or philosophical point’.

At the end of the first section he makes a comparison between American and European literature based on Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America. In this paragraph he makes a three-layered argument.

First of all: there is Stein’s basic philosophical characterisation of the distinction between the atmospheres of US and English literature. She describes the English works as ‘the tireless description of “daily life,” of lived routine and continuity, in which possessions are daily counted up and evaluated, in which the basic structure is one of cycle and repetition’. To this she contrasts America’s formless content; ‘always to be reinvented, an uncharted wilderness in which the very notion of experience itself is perpetually called into question and revised, in which time is an indeterminate succession from which a few decisive, explosive, irrevocable instants stand out’.

Secondly, Jameson moves from here to an extrapolation of each in the context of the fictional murder and its meaning and interpretation by the reader. The murder in the English context is ‘the sign of a scandalous interruption in a peaceful continuity’; a continuity whose peace is interpretable as the monopoly on violence by a ruling class. In the American context, meanwhile, ‘gangland violence…is felt as a secret destiny, a kind of nemesis lurking beneath the surface’.

Thirdly, in both cases individual acts of violence are really a diversion that indirectly serves another purpose at the hands of the writer, or from the group out of which the novel’s perspective emerges. In English literature it can be said to serve the purpose of reinforcing the felt presence of order by negative relief. In the American, meanwhile, it is there

‘to allow it to be experienced backwards, in pure thought, without risks, as a contemplative spectacle which gives not so much the illusion of life as the illusion that life has already been lived, that we have already had contact with the archaic sources of that Experience of which Americans have always made a fetish’

In order to understand fully this distinction we must trace a line downwards, from the concepts of Stein’s analysis to Jameson’s use of them to illustrate the distinct life of the American detective story. Initially, America is described as a wilderness of time, constantly reinventing itself and its experience in the aftermath of a local catastrophe. Hence the violence changes its meaning. Although it remains on the periphery of the narrative, it also envelopes it as a hidden destiny. In the case of the English story, violence is generally repressed and channelled into the public outlet of an occasional murder which functions as a safety valve on the moral bubble of a town. In the US the relationship is inverted, as if the Americans had figured out how to exploit the creative potential of repression for the production of a social identity, and to use it again and again.

If violence is here a destiny it is because the means for its interpretation and use as a ground of continuity have been made public. Walter Benjamin’s famous critique that stipulates that the state is a monopoly of legitimate violence is shown to break down on the far side of the Atlantic, where the fact that power is available for a fixed price reveals the truth of capital; that violence accompanies the flow of money, circulating throughout a political-economy. Hence it is aptly noted that the gang, crime syndicate, or state bureau are the proper form of the perpetrator in US detective fiction. In each case the violence is systemic and interior.

I said above that the figure of the detective is a correlate of the problematisation of the relations from which the story emerges. If this problematisation is interpreted as, more or less, in each case, the engineering of chaos through violence, the detective, it appears, is somehow born of the social group’s need to reinvent itself. For this to be possible, he must possess the moral counterparts of a clean slate; honesty, integrity and (at least relative) innocence. In the detective the group produces its own outsider; a form of the exterior who transforms all internal divisions into relations of exteriority and surface interaction, where friction is perpetuated. Hence violence tends to proliferate throughout the progression of the detective’s narrative. Contrast this to the English case in which the outsider is produced by the perpetration of a crime, reinforcing the social bonds which he has threatened, and thus is expelled from the collective.

In English literature, then, violence is engineered for the sake of excluding the criminal and producing the outside as a negative form in order to maintain the rule of law through creative, dialectical tension. In American literature, violence is engineered for the sake of turning the social group itself inside-out; thereby producing a fresh perspective capable of reinventing the entire economic and political order; and, finally, reasserting not the established law, but more the power of individuals to lay down their own law. This is why Jameson emphasises the American detective novel’s incapacity to get beyond the definition of its own starting point, and that it rather tends to displace itself, from scenario to scenario, from location to location, wherein the same struggles are played out; affirming nothing but the need to constantly begin again. Empty time, the pure future, takes the place of European historicism.

The exact same technique, it appears, is employed by Jameson as he invents for himself a general reader on which he bases his appropriation of Stein’s analysis. This technique is not peculiar to Jameson, either, it is more like the form of literary theory in general. This field of critique plays upon the notion of a reading public constituted by a set of imaginative practices and moral ends, somehow both active and passive. One the one hand, the imaginary landscape of the detective story (or any kind of story) is articulated with the real and symbolic landscapes inhabited by the reading public and from which the narrative derives its force and urgency.

From the point of view of Marxist literary theory, social problems are what enable the writing of the story itself. Meaning is transferred in both directions, producing the reader as a threshold, or membrane, between the text and its historical milieu. At this point, the reader appears to be an entirely passive entity. In the act of reading, however, the real and imaginary landscapes become one. Separations appear, instead, in between the fragments of texture gathered to make the story, just as they do between shards of real memory. It is the reader’s job to put these things together and restore narrative continuity, just as the detective does. As this process is initiated, in between the fragments there appear windows onto the element of separation, the real time of reading, which reveals the social and historical context which unite her with the story. The general reader, therefore, has three dimensions; first she is a membrane through which things pass among the dimensions of a body politic; second, a vessel of empty time or a site of action herself; and, third, an organ of perception. She becomes all three simultaneously through the actions of the theorist as literature’s becoming conscious of itself.

Literature becomes self-conscious on the basis of the reading public, and, therefore, on the basis of a new set of elements; text, context (or historical backdrop), the reader and the writer. A new structure emerges: the reader appears within the context of a tradition which ties together two sets of oppositions; reader versus writer, text versus context. The theorist breaks the continuity of discourse by analysing the literary tradition, thereby inventing a new mode of reading which reproduces the reader in general as a detective. Through her analysis of the act of reading, the theorist makes the reader, in general, a protagonist of her own narration. Jameson is subsequently able to ground his theory of the detective story by inventing evidence and attributing it to the experience of the new protagonist. What becomes possible through this construction is the invention of ground and evidence for an objective theory from purely subjective material. When Jameson refers here to the general reader he immediately bypasses the need to validate his basic conceptual framework.

This now appears to be quite an old trick. The technical philosophical term for it is phenomenological description, in which autobiography becomes the narrative thread for the analysis of an epoch. It is distinguished from the act of narration in general by a reflexive moment, wherein the narrator, or investigator, takes into consideration the correspondence of the narrative experience to something outside of itself. This separation then becomes the basis for a judgement of truth. According to Martin Heidegger, this was the characteristic movement of Renaissance philosophy, in particular, the work of René Descartes, who first put the real in the position of having to account for itself. According to Giles Deleuze, it was with David Hume that philosophical writing subsequently became an investigation, and the philosopher became a detective. The characteristic psychological state that accompanies this entire era of thought and culture is suspicion. Jameson picks up on this:

‘suspicion is everywhere in this world, peering from behind a curtain, barring entry, refusing to answer, preserving the privacy of the monad against snoopers and trespassers. Its characteristic manifestations are the servant coming back out into the hallway, the man in the car lot hearing a noise, the custodian of a deserted farm looking outside, the manager of the rooming house taking another look upstairs, the bodyguard appearing in the doorway’

Jameson here links suspicion to the kind of social organisation that proliferates under capitalism. Individualist politics and private property make enemies of friends and turn all perspective into attack and defence. Thus it is that the detective, as an offspring of the police organisation, is an extension of the state’s desire to impose constant surveillance on its inhabitants. Since this kind of perspective depends upon the engineering and maintenance of separations within the basic components of any system, it is indeed possible to use the detective story to argue that there is a structural affinity that runs throughout a particular philosophical, psychological and political-economic era.

Therefore let us note a contradiction in Jameson’s initial claim – that the detective novel alone highlights a profound truth of American life due to its lack of philosophical or ideological content. First of all, we have seen it is possible that this process is neither unique to the detective novel, nor to American fiction, but has very old roots and comes to a head under what is commonly called modernism. However, there is still something unique about the detective novel as a form capable of introducing into full consciousness the element of the narrative sequence, or the assembly of fragmentary events into a perspective. This is the detective’s point of view. If we are to follow Jameson in further distinguishing this from long-form fiction’s tendency to go as far as establishing the full erection of an alternative perspective, we see that the detective novel is pitched at an intermediary stage. It has the potential to highlight a new field in which dialectical tensions are there to be held open rather than resolved. Hence, suspicion reigns in a world turned inside-out by violence. One can infer from this that the missing key is a relevancy filter, since, through suspicion, everything potentially becomes evidence; “the stained carpets, the sand-filled spittoons, the poorly shutting glass doors”.

Therefore Jameson is both right and wrong when he says that the violence in American fiction is perpetrated:

‘to allow it to be experienced backwards, in pure thought, without risks, as a contemplative spectacle which gives not so much the illusion of life as the illusion that life has already been lived, that we have already had contact with the archaic sources of that Experience of which Americans have always made a fetish’

To give the illusion that life has already been lived through our encounters with raw fragmentary perceptions. The extraneous details are signs that have no reference and lead us nowhere, but that, through the perpetuation of violence can become meaningful and be fetishised. This stained carpet brings about the imagining of its cause which then offers itself to the mind of the protagonist in the next scene. In a similar way in The Cohen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (arguably a tribute to the film noir tradition), the Dude repeats the phrases of George Bush senior (along with everyone else he speaks too), which, now meaningless, draw him further into unpredictable entanglements in the seedy underworld of Los Angeles.

In order for this signifying potential to be unleashed in the mundane details of a life defined by consumption, this life must be held at bay, both already lived and recognised in a primitive form, and yet still to be reactivated under undisclosed circumstances. When Jameson says that the violence is perpetrated in order for it to be experienced backwards as the archaic source of a fetishised experience, he misses a distinction between the specific acts of violence in a crime narrative and the violence they reveal as a secret destiny. When he says ‘pure thought, without risks’ he means pure representation, or spectacle. But the violence that permeates a fetishised experience is of another kind, it is the violence that underlies representation itself. There is first a primitive delirium underlying the establishment of a fixed code. This delirium has the power to turn the mundane into a domain of totems, unleashing a symbolic potential which inflames the mind of the protagonist. This is, in fact, pure thought, pregnant with risk. An apprehension of the mind in its process of formation, where thinking amounts to putting everything up for doubt and experimentation. The language which stabilises afterwards enables the honesty of the detective almost as a direct effect or consequence; a necessary faith in recounting events down to the last detail, since in a world where everything is evidence, nothing can be excluded. A faith which can only be inspired in a naïve mind, still receptive to raw sensations.

Thus a bridge is built between the two styles of American and English fiction. Although it seems the American form of the detective novel embraces the act of violence as a means of inducing delirium as a creative opportunity; a means of re-appropriating the repression that follows. The English form starts from the point of view of repression and also approaches delirium as a means of maintaining itself through a kind of vaccination.

It is said that European thought rests on history in a way that American thought can’t. Really, both styles have apprehended the need to tap chaos in order to maintain a system, which is the same as to say that history depends upon a flow of symbolic potential which is stored in prehistory or mythology. If European literature, only in a broad sense, generalises its history and localises its encounter with myth, America generalises (or externalises) myth in order to localise history. Whatever the difference, the comparison remains theoretically unresolvable if we persist, as with Jameson, to assert that the form is defined by a lack of philosophical, ideological content. In fact it is only a lack of historical veracity that defines the movement of the American detective novel. To reduce philosophy to history in this way, is to reduce philosophy to European subjectivity, and to remain incapable of explaining the American style. It is a style defined by a liberation from European history, laying its roots instead in a wellspring of myth.



brendanBrendan Sibley works in London in environmental conservation. He has a BA in Philosophy from Warwick and an MA in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths.



Interested in reading more on violence and rebellion? Take a look at this article:

Interested in the link between myth, history and violence? Have you read Violence and the Sacred by René Girard? Or Foucault’s seminars at the College de France on the government of self and others?

'Demon Seated', Mikhail Vrubel

Psychopaths and Morality: Where do they fit?

Psychopathy is a psychological disorder that leads to antisocial behaviour and often is associated with bold and insensitive actions towards others. In moral philosophy, psychopathy has generated the following ethical conundrum:

Is it moral to hook up a psychopath (whose only pleasure is killing) to a reality-simulating machine so that he can believe he is in the real world and kill as much as he likes?”

Some people would say that this is a nonexistent dilemma – without a doubt, this is the morally right thing to do. Not, perhaps, according to Immanuel Kant. Kant would likely have claimed that this act is in no way moral, since it violates the second maxim of his Categorical Imperative (a principle within his moral theory) which explicitly forbids us from treating people as means or manipulating them in any way. With this interpretation of Kant in mind, using a reality-simulating machine for this purpose would not be justified since the psychopath, who should be an “end-in-itself” is downgraded to a mere means toward an end; namely, our psychopath-free society.

On the other hand, if our end is societal well-being, one person’s ‘suffering’ – namely, the fact that the psychopath is removed from reality – certainly does not outweigh the resulting non-suffering of the many. In essence, this is a utilitarian outlook to take when it comes to this moral conundrum. It is in complete disagreement with Kant’s moral philosophy for it suggests it is not really immoral to manipulate one person if everyone else benefits from this. The question remains, though, do either of these outlooks solve the dilemma? One reason to suspect not is that both neglect the question of whether or not we can even assign blame to the psychopath for their desire to kill.

Another situation, devised by philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, can help us explore whether we can assign blame to those whose actions are not within their control. A man, Tom, breaks into John’s house. Tom walks up the stairs, looms over John’s bed before bashing his skull in with a baseball bat. Instantaneously, most of us, believing that some form of retaliation is in order, would say that Tom deserves to be imprisoned or even that he should be executed. Now let’s add that Tom had a brain tumour. We might then pause to reflect on this new information. It seems that there is a potential new explanation: his violent behaviour resulted from the tumour. Our former moral condemnation of said behaviour would no longer seem as justified. If we were in Tom’s place, we might have done the same thing. So, circling back to our original moral problem, why does Tom get the benefit of the doubt for his actions, whereas the psychopath does not for their desire to kill?

Let’s put our psychopath to the test.

You are standing at the edge of a cliff with a fat man beside you. You notice five people are tied up on the tracks, where a trolley will run them over if you don’t throw the fat man – whose weight would derail the trolley – onto the tracks. Do you throw him?

Most of us would naturally recoil and take a second to pause. The psychopath, however, would not; they would cast the fat man onto the tracks in an instant. If the psychopath were to be questioned on their rationale, their answer would most likely be formulated as the most sensible calculation, under the circumstances. That is to say that this would not be a rash decision, since psychopaths in some studies have been shown to have abnormally high IQ scores along with, on one conception of rationality, perfect reasoning capabilities and impeccable logic. What line of reasoning would have led the psychopath to their decision then? It doesn’t seem to be a utilitarian reason guiding their actions (though this certainly might guide us in carrying out the same action) but rather the lack of a specific emotion, empathy.

An interesting point to consider would be whether our hypothetical psychopath, whose only joy is derived from killing people, would actually intervene or instead leave those five people to die. However, in ethics, we often wrestle with the distinction between killing and letting die, and in this particular case, assuming the distinction holds, the psychopath would probably still kill the fat man, yet have no regard for the lives of the five people he saved. What we can infer from this is the psychopath’s response to the dilemma involves a definite mismatch between the outcome of their actions and their intention.

‘Demon Downcast’, Mikhail Vrubel

To help shed light on this issue, it might prove useful to delve deeper into what it means clinically to be a psychopath. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a psychopath possesses these traits:

– Uncaring (lack of empathy)
– Lack of remorse or shame
– Irresponsibility
– Selfishness
– Irritability and aggressiveness

Now, we need to answer the question of whether or not we can blame the psychopath for being a psychopath. If we look at the brain of such an individual, we find dysfunctional elements in the amygdala, the ’emotional’ portion of the brain (see “Neurobiological basis of psychopathy”). More and more, we are seeing that psychopaths really did not choose to become (or from birth, be) psychopaths and their actions can be neurologically broken down into awkward synaptic firings. As a result, we might no longer resent the psychopath (or those in a temporarily similar circumstance, such as Tom) for their neurological states which are quite seriously out of their control.

Still, why then insist on the need for the reality-simulating machine? This could be considered as a manifestation of our blame towards the psychopath and we have already discussed the intuition that blaming people for things outside of their control is morally questionable, at best. Of course, aside from (or in addition to) retribution, one motivation is so as to protect others from the psychopath. Did the psychopath volunteer for such an intervention, though? One might say that the psychopath wouldn’t mind, but in cases where it is against their will (I am inclined to believe that this would be the case for the majority of these individuals), hooking them up to this reality-simulating machine is certainly not moral since these factors appear now to be totally out of their control. Also, if we should satisfy our retributivist desires, aren’t we just satisfying the psychopath’s own desires, however out of their control they may be? If we are really to follow some form of retributivism this ‘punishment’ is actually more of service to psychopaths.

Clearly, psychopaths seem to possess a distinctive moral compass, not necessarily pointing in the same direction as our own. But where do psychopaths derive their morals, if any, from? It may help us to comprehend where the ‘morals’ of psychopaths originate from as it will elucidate why their reasoning strays from our own on the trolley problem and reality-simulating dilemma.  The prevalent view is that psychopaths have no morals: they suffer from a moral deficit and we should study how this lack of morals arises. A recent study with this view has determined that:

The main problem seems to be a broken amygdala, a brain area responsible for secreting aversive emotions, like fear and anxiety. As a result, psychopaths never feel bad when they make other people feel bad. Aggression doesn’t make them nervous. Terror isn’t terrifying. (Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that the amygdala is activated when most people even think about committing a moral transgression.)

If this conception of psychopaths’ moral development is correct, the key point to take away from such empirical work is that psychopaths don’t feel bad when they make other people feel bad. This supports a long tradition in moral theory, that contends it is not reason that guides our moral judgement, but emotion. Contrary to Kant’s duties derived from rational maxims or John Stuart Mill’s mathematically-inclined utilitarianism, the morality of non-psychopaths could function in spite of rationality.

In the discussion of the trolley problem, it was observed that non-psychopaths would reflect, in terms of “recoiling”, before making a decision. Recoiling from a decision, as it were, is a purely emotional reaction, one which psychopaths are incapable or uninterested in expressing. Additionally, the discussion on the reality-simulating dilemma didn’t generate a clear answer, yet it enabled us to look further into the underlying issues of moral culpability and the psychological inner-workings of the psychopathic mentality. Interestingly enough, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once suggested, “morality is the sign-language of the emotions”. This observation links up to our modern scientific understanding of psychopaths and their fractured amygdalae. Psychopaths seem to operate beyond any moral considerations that we may lay out for them, which makes these issues as intractable as they are fascinating.

Kyle van Oosterum is a first-year philosophy student at the University of St. Andrews.