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'The Harrowing of Hell', by Anonymous

The Question of Evil and the Non-human

Is evil monstrous?

The question of whether moral evil can be perceived as non-human, or whether it has some relationship to normal human experience, was at the philosophical heart of the famous Eichmann-Arendt controversy over the Banality of Evil. 

Hannah Arendt did not in her famous study, depict Adolph Eichmann, convicted for crimes against humanity, as a stereotypical sadist with evil intentions, a demonic being with horns, some amoral almost superhuman Shakespearian monster: “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth” hence “one cannot,” Arendt asserted, “extract diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann.” Eichmann was “neither perverted nor sadistic”, but “terrifyingly normal.” He acted without any motive other than diligently seeking his own “personal advancement” within the Nazi bureaucracy.  Beyond this careerism, Arendt insisted, there were no other motives—evil or otherwise. Eichmann committed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact closely connected to his “thoughtlessness,” a  disengagement from the reality of his evil acts, because,  as Arendt said, Eichmann “never realized what he was doing,” due to an “inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Lacking this particular capacity, he committed the crimes he did because it was “impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong,” 

This purported cluelessness,  an absence of sadistic intent, as well as being motivated to commit evil deeds by mundane careerist ambitions, constituted what Hannah Arendt meant, in part, by Eichmann’s “Banality of Evil.” There was no putative inner evil, Arendt insisted, in Eichmann that could be discovered, no deeper roots, intentions, motives, or causes to explain Eichmann’s evil acts. Ultimately, we are left with a surface, essentially biographical, explanation for Eichmann’s acts. 

Something deeper?

Yet did Arendt actually discover a clue to something deeper about evil despite her denials? Her account of Eichmann’s inability “to know or feel that he [was] doing wrong” describes a lack of empathy co-equal with an absence of conscience (which is in accord with the conclusions of other thinkers, such as Eric Fromm, who studied prominent Nazis).

While the controversy over Arendt’s judgment about Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness” and inability to think (and feel) from the point of view of another person has sparked vociferous moral and political debates, another question needs to be asked, what philosophers call the ontological one: Are evil agents in some sense not human?  Or more formally: What is the nature and essence of the entity to which we attribute evil acts ascribed to a lack of empathy?

Sci-fi and horror tales, as well as some provocative philosophical reflections, using figurative language, find this ontological link to evil in entities that have a non-human identity.

In Blade Runner “replicants” – murderous rogue androids designed to appear as human, but without empathy—are identified by tests to determine if they feel pity and empathy (tests which are actually used to identify psychopaths) thus unmasking their non-human identity, while in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pod People are predatory aliens that occupy ‘real’ humans, transforming them into emotionless clones of their former selves.

These modern fables have philosophical resonance. In their philosophical study of German social thought, scholars Gad Yair and Michaela Soyer argue that Hannah Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann, as the obedient agent of the Nazi genocidal bureaucracy, suggests, figuratively speaking, a kind of artificial human, a “submissive though harmful golem that fully obeys its masters.” (p.114). Philosopher Theodor Adorno suggested that the Nazis had seemingly morphed into non-human entities, when he observed in his essay Education after Auschwitz that “[p]eople of such nature…have assimilated themselves to things” (p.6). With these types, Adorno says, “we are dealing with people who cannot love…Those people are thoroughly cold” (p.8).

Though Arendt denied in Eichmann in Jerusalem that evil could be understood in the context of non-human attributes (Eichmann had no diabolic or demonic qualities), her portrait of Eichmann is that of a man who lacks the fundamental human quality of empathy that connects a person morally to the rest of humanity-aka a conscience. In effect, such persons have become, in part, non-human, that is, dehumanized by an absence of a basic trait that is essential to their essence as human beings in a moral universe of other humans. Or as Mary McCarthy, the novelist and Arendt’s insightful friend, said: if Eichmann lacked a “conscience…then isn’t he a monster simply?”

When Arendt identifies Eichmann’s extreme inability to connect to other humans, to the extent that he had no empathy for his victims and is disengaged from the reality of his barbarous crimes against humanity, she gives him another dimension besides the ordinary and normal. At this point, Eichmann becomes analogous to a harmful golem, a murderous replicant, a predator without moral sensibilities and human feelings— assimilated to a ‘thing’ outside of the human race. 

Despite Arendt’s intention to argue that Eichmann was a commonplace bureaucrat interested only in his own mundane personal career advancement, not a sadistic monster, she implicitly reveals the truly monstrous evil in his nature, not merely in his acts. 

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.        

Napoleon Bonaparte

Tolstoy, Napoleon and the ‘Great Men’ of History

Putin annexes the Crimea; Trump pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal; Merkel opens the door to more refugees.

Given the way we talk about geopolitical events, you would think that they were personal actions made by individual people. However, this is more than just an issue with the words we use our language betrays an actual tendency to attribute movements of global relevance to the will of a single person. We quite happily praise or blame a world leader for events that we like or don’t like, and it is only possible to do this with a clear conscience if we believe that they were indeed responsible for it happening.

It appears questionable to view things this way. Can an event that affects millions of people really be attributed to a single decision made by a single individual? The answer may be found in one of the classic novels of Russian literature.

War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in the 1860s, half a century or so after the events which it describes. In it Tolstoy argues that the focus on so-called ‘great men’ (as in Carlyle’s Great Man theory) – a common mode of thinking in his time – results in contradictory explanations for historical events.

Tolstoy explains his thinking using the 1812 invasion of Russia. As Tolstoy outlines it, the conventional historical account goes roughly as follows: certain events (which I will refer to as the background causes) directly contributed to the lead up to the war. These include the Russian non-observance of the continental system and the unjust treatment of the Duke of Oldenburg, and came together to create a situation in which Napoleon had to make a decision: whether to invade Russia or not. He, after much consideration – the cogs of his mind turning – decided to wage war. The invasion thus began on the 12th of June 1812, when Napoleon ordered the French forces to cross the river Niemen and begin marching towards Moscow.

How is this account contradictory? Tolstoy believed that the independence which it ascribes to Napoleon’s role contradicts what it says about the background causes.

Tolstoy notes that if any of the war’s background causes had not occurred then Napoleon would have been confronted by a totally different situation, and in such a case may not have decided to begin the war. Moreover, each of the background causes had the same feature itself: each had a multiplicity of causes, every one of them vital to the occurrence of the resulting event. Following a reduction back to ever more distant past events, it can be seen that the situation Napoleon was put in had a countless number of causes, each of them with the important feature that if they had not have happened the war may not have happened. Tolstoy concludes that the lead up to the invasion at least prior to Napoleon’s involvement was governed by what he calls ‘the law of causal coincidence’: a countless number of past events, stretching back indefinitely, combined and coincided to create a particular state of affairs. The situation in which Napoleon found himself having to act was the result of an infinitely complex causal web.

And how about the role of Napoleon? It is from this point on that Tolstoy believes the conventional account loses its way.

According to the conventional account, even though Napoleon did in fact decide to invade, he could also have chosen not to. When we take for granted the view of the background causes being causally determined, this suggestion does not sit well. This is because to believe in both is to believe that the background causes were an inevitable product of the events that came before them, whereas Napoleon’s decision to start the war rested only on his own deliberations.

Tolstoy believed this to be a fatal inconsistency. After all, the decisions and actions of many people created the background causes – if the background causes were purely a product of causality, then so must have been the actions and decisions of those humans who created them. Therefore, if we assert that Napoleon’s role was determined only by his own deliberation, then we are saying that the role of every person involved in the lead up to the war was causally-determined except Napoleon’s, and this is absurd. The personality and character of the French Emperor was just as much outside his control as anyone else’s disposition is outside their control, and since his actions – having been put in a particular situation – proceed from his character the same must be said of these actions: he could not have made any other decision than the one to invade Russia.

Consequently, our intuition that the war of 1812’s occurrence depended on the deliberations of Napoleon is misleading. If we feel that the background causes were a product of causal determination, it would be inconsistent to assume that Napoleon’s eventual decision to go to war was not so. We find the notion that it all depended on Napoleon compelling because he appears to us as a sort of decision-maker, but this distinction is, contrary to our intuition, not fundamental. The part played by Napoleon was just as much a product of the events that came before it as the other parts of the causal chain and these other parts, as we have established, were also vital to the occurrence of the final event. The role of Napoleon was therefore, in the most important senses, merely one cause among many:

Anyone who claims that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and eventually lost because Alexander wanted him to lose, will be no more right or wrong than the man who claims that thousands of tons of earth in an undermined hill collapsed because of the last blow from the last pick-axe of the last workman.1

Like that of the last workman in Tolstoy’s metaphor, the uniqueness of the action of Napoleon in causing the war lies neither in a special capacity to act independently of the events that came before him, nor in his role having a unique indispensability to the war happening, but in the simple fact that he was the one who happened to find himself in the position where he could strike the last blow. To seek to explain the war of 1812 in terms of Napoleon’s deliberations is the same as explaining the collapse of the hill by referring only to the physical force with which the last workman hits the rock with his tool.


In the year preceding the French invasion of Russia, what came to be known as ‘Napoleon’s comet’ was visible with remarkable vividness in the night skies of the northern hemisphere. For Pierre, a character in War and Peace, the sighting of the celestial body above Moscow is a moment of spiritual renewal. A year later however, in the hearts of many war-afflicted Russians, the appearance of the comet was remembered as an omen of the horror to come, an ominous foreshadowing of the end of the world they were convinced they were witnessing around them. The end-times had come, and – as the fictional Pierre also comes to believe – the antichrist was Napoleon.

We would be mistaken to think that we are less irrational than this nowadays. In our age of political polarisation, we find explanations for events that put them down to the will of a single person particularly appealing. Anger needs a focus: we need to be angry at something in particular, otherwise we find ourselves in despair. When we feel things are going wrong we need someone to take the blame, and in order to pin blame on someone we need to perceive total responsibility on their part for what has happened that we don’t like. The result is an unexamined faith in the great men of history – the individuals on whom everything counts. We may not believe that any of our political figures is the antichrist, but as betrayed by the apocalyptic discourse surrounding the arrival of some individuals, we appear to be possessed by the same religious idea in a non-religious guise.


Leon Sinfield recently graduated with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of Manchester. He is primarily interested in philosophy, politics, and literature.



Further ‘Reading’:

BBC Radio 3, ‘Tolstoy and Napoleon’:

Eelco Runia,’War and Peace and the Theory of History’:


Is buying and selling organs for human transplantation morally acceptable?

Organ markets in the United Nations and European union are currently illegal, but with black markets evident in other countries and our current low supply of human organs for transplant, there’s been an increase in support for legalising the buying and selling of organs. This raises an interesting question: could it be morally acceptable to buy and sell organs for human transplantation? It’s easier to focus on a particular case-study, so let’s examine in detail whether it is morally acceptable to buy and sell human kidneys first.

At present, without a market in kidneys there is currently a shortage for kidney transplants. The consequences for those in need of the transplant are known: immense suffering and, eventually, death. Before addressing whether it is morally permissible to legally trade in organs, and since the desired result is more organs available for transplantation, we must consider whether a ban on organ markets decreases the supply of available organs. People may be more adverse to voluntarily donating organs if they are offered money in exchange for their organs. If this were the case, an organ market irrespective of whether its morally permissible would go against our desired outcome of increasing the number of available organs for transplantation incentives (i.e. cash incentive), however, may have the opposite effect, increasing the supply of available organs, thus reducing or preventing the suffering and death of those left waiting on the transplant list. If what we ultimately desire is the reduction of unnecessary immense suffering and death, it follows that this is a good thing and we ought to do it. Let’s bracket this question for now and assume for the sake of argument that people acting on cash incentives will be more likely to donate organs than voluntarily donate them. It must then be examined if, all things considered, the “good” consequences of organ markets outweigh the “bad”.

If we shift our focus to think about issues concerning bodily autonomy for a moment, why do we think there should be external limits imposed on what we can do with our own bodies? Each person has the right to decide what happens to their body, and if some decide to give some of it away in return for an agreed price, then that is something they have a right to do, regardless of consequences or rewards. Currently, people are free to donate their kidneys if they wish and that’s considered acceptable. In fact, we routinely praise people that voluntarily donate their kidneys to others. So what extra harm is caused by introducing a monetary reward for doing the right thing? However, having a market in kidneys may have such negative unintended consequences that it would be wrong to allow people to sell and buy kidneys: sometimes, the social consequences undermine a putative right.

It must also be considered whether kidney markets are truly examples of free exchange. Most people that sell blood plasma today do so out of a sense of desperation or as a last resort. We must consider whether these choices done in desperation are well-informed or if the seller is capable of understanding the risks. There’s something morally troubling about an individual selling part of one’s body in order to survive. And this is exasperated when we consider how dangerous it is to undergo surgery to remove a kidney. However, it is not clear whether organ donation over a regulated organ market would avoid this problem of weak agency. As Satz (2008, 278) notes, ‘Regulating a legalized kidney market, rather than relying on a black market, would arguably go some way to redressing the worries about exploitation and one-sided terms of sale. If properly regulated, for example, an organ market might be structured to discourage sales from extremely poor donors.’

Certain kinds of markets may have consequences which may unfairly affect some people over others. Poorer people are more likely to sell whilst richer are more able to purchase the organs. Again, Satz notes (2008, 279), ‘Some critics have charged that organ markets will turn desperately poor people effectively into ‘spare parts’ for the rich.’ Kidneys, if allowed to be bought and sold, would mean that the allocation would not be to those who may need it most, but instead those who are willing, or have the ability, to pay more, thus creating further inequality. It may be argued, however, that inequality is present prior to the buying/selling of the kidney: ‘Moreover, kidney sales do not cause the inequalities in our world between the haves and the have-nots. Rather, like a mirror they reflect the current underlying inequalities in our social world.’ (P280, Satz, 2008)

So where do these concerns leave us standing? Unless the markets can be regulated through governmental control, with agreed-upon rules that limit coercion, and providing care and ensuring full awareness of risks for all parties involved, then the moral consequences on the exchanging of organs for human transplantation, all things considered, outweigh the good.

Works Cited

Satz, Debra. “The Moral Limits of Markets: The Case of Human Kidneys.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 108, 2008, pp. 269–288. JSTOR,

Holly Connolly is a second year BA philosophy student at the University of Hull. Her philosophical interests are AI, transhumanism, consciousness, personal identity and ethics. She is a mother to a toddler, Maximus, and likes to play rugby in her spare time.





What do you think about the moral permissibility of buying and selling human organs for transplantation? Leave a comment below.

Reflection of Parque Cultural Paulista building in Avenida Paulista, Brazil by Wilfredo Rodríguez

Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others

In the current era of political distrust and ideological extremism, perhaps the only element of modern politics we can all agree upon is its democratic structure – or can we? While democracy is now revered as the only political system which gives value to the opinions and rights of all individuals, in a society plagued by misinformation and manipulation, we are forced to question whether it is really the most just and robust system to let everyone over a certain age to vote, no matter their level of knowledge or exposure to potentially misleading political campaigns. This will be a study of the very essence of democracy; its flaws, its promise, and whether there exists a viable alternative.

Democracy’s Flaws

Western democracy has sustained several blows in the last few years: the infamous Brexit referendum of 2016 and Trump’s US election victory that same year have led to a collective reflection on how democracy works, and how it can be maintained when corrupt campaigning practices blur the lines. This crude awakening is forcing even the most progressive to question the uncontainable fluidity which modern democracy imposes on the political climate. However, reassessing a structure long-deemed the one and only perfect system is as open-minded as it is potentially regressive, and is putting society’s hard-earned freedom of speech at risk. 

Scholars Milbank and Pabst proposed in 2016 that the modern surge in populism represents  ‘a tectonic shift in Western politics,’ suggesting that democracy – or at least the way in which it is carried out today – is fundamentally flawed. Wright agreed that ‘…with one referendum and a presidential election, liberal democracy as we’ve known it seems finally, dramatically, to have collapsed in on itself.’ 

But this contentious attitude that the right to vote should be earned instead of freely given is nothing new. Asimov proposed back in 1980 that we, as a society, are fooled by the false notion that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,’ thanks to the way in which we currently practice democracy. And of course, the first recorded to voice this issue was Socrates, who notoriously defined voting in an election as a skill which needs to be taught, rather than a right to be received. As elitist as this argument may seem, there may be some value in reassessing the belief that reaching adulthood alone merits the privilege of having your opinion shape decisions which affect the masses. As such, there is some weight in the proposition that a certain level of education or pre-testing be imposed before granting a citizen the right to vote. 

Indeed, since the right to vote holds such gravitas within modern culture, and any restriction other than age is hugely stigmatised in modern society, now that gender and racial barriers have been lifted after a long and arduous struggle, it could be viewed as social regression to impose such regulations. But as with other rights which affect the wellbeing of others – such as to drive a vehicle or qualify for a certain profession – perhaps being eligible to vote should be regarded with a similar license-based approach in order to ensure public protection. Although limitations to democracy should be considered with caution, it has to be said that this proposition is a far cry from excluding based on race, gender or social class.

Democracy’s Promise

Despite these recent doubts surrounding democracy, Fukuyama proclaimed it as the ‘final form of government,’ after which no further advancement can be made. Although secular in its presentation, this approach is based on the biblical metanarrative of teleology, proposing that human civilization progresses along a pre-destined procession of developmental stages, the last of which marks the ultimate perfect existence. However, this prophetic approach to democracy appears blinkered to the limitless possibility for political systems outside of the domineering western narrative. Furthermore, Derrida conversely argues that a democratic political system actually challenges the doctrine of teleology, as by its unsolidified nature, democracy cannot exist within the constraints of such expectations. He described democracy as:

‘…the only paradigm that is universalizable, whence its chance and its fragility. But in order for this historicity unique among all political systems to be complete, it must be freed from all teleology.’

This notion of emancipation from the teleological narrative could refer to this already touched upon fluidity of a liberal democracy: characterised by its openness to change, unlike other political systems it does not attempt to be permanent. Perhaps Derrida is right that democracy equates to society untangling itself from its alleged teleological destiny.

The End of Democracy

Every generation is fooled by the myopic mindset that they already have all the answers. However, history has taught us that there is always further progress to be made, and in order to evolve, we must look at our current system with a critical eye, never closed to potential improvement. Indeed, absolute perfection impracticable, but this should not deter present and future civilizations from striving for it. As such, although the dominant belief is that the current democratic system is the only viable option, possible alternatives or adaptations should be explored. Perhaps Fukuyama’s proclamation that no further advancement is possible is both naïve and counterintuitive to humanity’s constant quest for progress. 

Furthermore, the political framework of democracy is unique in that in its nature, it welcomes critique and is subject to no absolute ideology or leader. Indeed, all authoritative figures are transitory and their status depends on public approval. Derrida described this self-imposed vulnerability as an ‘auto-immunity,’ suggesting that the very existence of democracy is an attack on itself. Indeed, the current phenomenon of restrictive populist ideologies gaining momentum thanks to the democratic systems in place is a prime example of how such movements are paradoxically threatening the very freedoms which gave them a platform. Could this ultimately lead to democracy’s demise?

Democracy: The Bottom Line

Despite democracy’s imperfections and troubles both throughout history and in recent times, such episodes of volatility are an unavoidable part of the system. The freedom provided by a democratic society means that backlash is inevitable, since by its malleable nature, democracy is perpetually vulnerable to attack. That being said, the flaws discussed do not necessarily mean that democracy is doomed to fail, but rather that a degree of fluidity and vulnerability constitutes the very essence of the political system. It may not be as strong and self-assured as more rigid regimes, but is this alleged weakness not also democracy’s main strength? 

Overall, despite the drawbacks of democracy, no alternative system any closer to the utopian image which humanity is intrinsically wired to seek has yet been developed. As such, in spite of the inevitable challenges calling for adaptations to the current voting protocol, when it comes to the foundations of the democratic system, as it stands, no better option exists.

Roxanna Azimy is a British and Iranian freelance writer specialized in sociocultural issues, human rights, and welfare, Roxanna completed Masters degree in European Studies from LSE where she focused on political philosophy. She went on to work in EU affairs and public relations for the next three years, and now writes full-time, aiming to make politics more human, big issues more relatable, and philosophy about real, everyday life.

Recommended reading:

Fukuyama, F. (2006) ‘The End of History and the Last Man,’ New York: Simon and Schuster

Milbank, J and Pabst, A. (2016) Article: ‘Beyond liberalism – defining a new centre ground of Western politics,’ The London School of Economics and Political Science Blog, 7th September 2016:

Asimov, I. (1980) Article: ‘A cult of Ignorance,’ Newsweek, 21 January 1980.


"An angel leading a soul into hell", Oil painting by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch

Why is there ‘Something Evil’ rather than ‘Nothing Evil’?

There is no more perplexing problem in the history of philosophy that the meaning of evil. Even the best philosophical minds have confessed to being stymied. One of the best philosophers of the 20th — or any other — Century, Hannah Arendt questioned the entire validity of the Western philosophical inquiry into moral evil. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) Arendt wrote:

It is inherent in our entire [Western] philosophical tradition that we cannot conceive of a ‘radical evil’…

The problem here may well lie with St. Augustine, who sought to avoid defining evil by means of a brilliant conceptual twist. Evil can only be defined as the absence of the “good”. Evil instead is defined by its very indefinability. Augustine wrote:

For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good?

While this was, in part, an intellectual maneuver by a committed Christian trying to explain away evil — human depravity and ‘natural’ evils such as disease — by denying that a perfect God could ever create such phenomena, this argument is not necessarily a religious one that relies solely on belief in a theistic, creational God. Plotinus, not readily classifiable as a Christian thinker, identified evil as linked to an emanation from the Godhead. Think of light growing fainter as it is emitted from a source of purer, brighter light. That faint light is a negative, derivative existent, not an independent, substantive existent. Evil is like that diminished light—it is an absence. Evil is not specific and differentiated. It is a ‘lack-ness’, not a ‘what-ness.’ 

This roundabout way of approaching the meaning of evil is deeply unsatisfactory. There is no surprise that later thinkers, such as Kant (who was not committed to a Christian-Emanation metaphysics) have honestly confessed that the very concept of evil puzzled them. 

Once we take the inquiry out of this metaphysical context, where we are forced to defend ‘perfection’ by explaining away moral evil as privation only, then we can start to answer the question: why is there ‘something evil’ rather than ‘nothing evil’?

“There are more things in heaven and earth…”

Consider Shakespeare‘s sense of the weird and strange expressed in Hamlet’s challenge to the philosopher Horatio that serves as a useful foundation for a fresh inquiry into the meaning of evil:

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Investigating a deeper evil means first acknowledging its actual, unique existence. Philosopher F.W.J. Schelling broke with the major Western philosophical tradition by rejecting Augustine’s ‘evil-as-privation-of-good’ thesis when he rejected  moral evil as a negative attribute –a ‘lack of’– a void without any existential reality. As Richard J. Bernstein observed in his study, Radical Evil: a philosophical investigation, Schelling is one of the few philosophers who refused to explain away evil as a “privation” or the “Absence of Good.”  

For Schelling evil does have deeper, substantive qualities — a “principle of darkness” that is “unruly,” always threatening, and which we can never wholly subdue or master. “Evil,” the 20th Century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (another one of the more edgy thinkers on the topic) observed “is an excess that cannot be integrated into our normal categories of understanding and reason.”  To try to fit evil into our quotidian categories of the every day fails according to this Evil-as- the-Diabolic-Outsider argument.  

“Nebuchadnezzar”, William Blake

Pop culture (and Nietzsche) to the rescue

Yet how is it possible to meaningfully construct human narratives about a moral evil that is seemingly beyond “normal categories of [human] understanding and reason”? Nietzsche’s definition of philosophy as “the seeking-out of everything strange and questionable in existence” is serviceable, which means, in our context, using unconventional ‘non-philosophical’ narratives—sci-fi, horror genres, the Theology of Undead, and pop culture analysis, as well as some more edgier philosophers, to give us some arguments and allegories that dramatically illustrate moral evil as a diabolical outsider.

The horror fantasy genre figuratively expresses Schelling’s insight about evil’s demonic dimension, its “unruly” and unmastered “principle of darkness” that always threatens us. Evil, as depicted in these stories, is diabolical, a uniquely invasive and alien quality which drives evildoers to commit crimes against humanity. Evildoers have no empathy with humans simply because these Others are firmly outside all homo sapien moral norms.

For example, theologian Jarrod Longbons, assessing the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, profiles vampires as “demonstrate[ing] radical evil because they parasite [on] the life of humans.” The difference between vampires and humans is stark: the latter have an ability to feel guilty, possess a conscience, and act through self-sacrifice, unlike their vampiric attackers. In an essay on the apocalyptic vampire film Priest, pop culture analyst Joseph Laycock describes the film’s vampire protagonists as having demonic depth—as being “not remotely human.” Grotesquely ugly, the vampires in this film are modeled on the horrific creatures in the Alien blockbuster series as a metaphorical way of driving home their complete otherness from humanity. 

These imaginative representations function as symbols of radical moral evil as not just the absence of good, but as a real existence –horrific and threatening to the human race — insights all in the spirit of Schelling.

Zombies a.k.a. the Undead, which have invaded pop culture via television, video games, cinema, and novels, (while also inviting the attention of contemporary philosophers and theologians), are another example of pop culture’s useful focus on this demonic dimension as an alternative to the banality of evil/privation of good thesis. But again these zombie tales are not bizarre flights of fancy, but have philosophical respectability. Indeed, Plato took zombies – and the substantive nature of evil in general – very seriously.

Plato meets the Zombie

Plato was not shy about confronting the demonic dimensions of evil. In fact, using a tale of the Undead, he crafted a Nietzschean-style project to search for “everything strange and questionable in existence” by dramatizing evil as a diabolical outsider always restless, never at peace, and linked to some overweening desire that can never be satisfied—much like the real world serial killers, profiled by Joyce Carol Oates in her powerful 1994 New York Review of Books essay

Plato conjures up in the Phaedo a dark imaginative vision of the dead as zombie-like evil beings, ‘alive’ only in a technical sense, that “hover…about tombs and graveyards.” The evil are the Undead destined forever to wander in an effort to satisfy their relentless physical desires which have corrupted them due to a dissolute life:

[T]hese must be souls, not of the good, but of the evil, which are compelled to wander about [experiencing a] craving for the corporeal which never leaves them…

Plato’s reflections in his dialogues Timaeus and Laws depict evil more formally but yet reiterate the ‘zombie-wandering’ theme: material reality is the site of the Wandering Cause, a disorderly element which being unpredictable disrupts our everyday expectation of rational order. As philosopher Mary Midgley and others have noted, this disruptive factor is considered by Plato to be the source of evil. One scholar even dubbed this vision of evil “Plato’s Devil.” 

“The Temptation of Christ”, Félix-Joseph Barrias

‘Something evil’ abides within the ordinary?

Some theories claim moral evil as exclusively a natural, human phenomenon, while if we follow the more imaginative, metaphysical path (horror stories, sci-fi tales, the Theology of the Undead, Schelling, Levinas, Plato) we go beyond the human-all-too-human categories of conventional thought to rediscover the demonic dimension as more than an absence, or ‘privation of the good.’ Can these two visions of the meaning of evil be reconciled?  The inhuman and alien that are yet embedded within, but masked by, the ordinary and human—the monstrous cohabitating within the ‘normal’?

Moral evil as the co-existence of the inhuman inhabiting the normal was suggested by Robert Louis Stevenson‘s classic horror fable of human depravity: a precursor to the modern serial killers, the diabolical, zombie-like Mr. Hyde is a night stalker and murderer, who commits his crimes without any remorse, yet cohabitating within the same self is the conventional, law-abiding Dr. Jekyll. If the phenomena of evil as portrayed by Robert Louis Stevenson is correct then it is terrifying and monstrous one minute, conventional and ‘normal’ the next. But of this there is no doubt: the evil of Mr. Hyde is not just the “privation of the good.”

In the history of philosophy, there is a minority report on the meaning of evil, which identifies it as an existent embedded as a ‘given’ in our concrete, ordinary material reality, not as a non-substantive, vapour-like product emanating top-down from –or created by –a perfect Godly source-entity. Plato, though considered the father of top-down metaphysics, was wise enough to understand that evil has a special status that cannot be explained away, as Augustine does, by a ‘vertical’ metaphysical framework. 

Once we dispense with the post-Plato, Christian-Emanation vision of reality, we understand at the logical level, what we have always understood at the empathetic-intuitive level: whether it is the depravity imagined in fictional horror genres, the barbaric history of the Holocaust, or the facts of unspeakable serial killings, moral evil’s existential reality cannot be lightly dismissed as ‘privations’ even if previous philosophers muddled the original inquiries.

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.

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.2

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?