Category Archives: Medium

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.

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'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?

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'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.

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‘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 Readysteadybook.com 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?

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'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_3-_earl_of_shaftesbury

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.

 

 

 

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'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

 

 

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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.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gay_Pride_March,_(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: http://undercurrentphilosophy.com/long/deleuzian-response-jamesons-raymond-chandler/

STRIKE! magazine(http://strikemag.org/)

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.

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'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.

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'Most people admire him; he was able to do what we all should do, and which we don’t, for many different reasons.'

The Life of Roberto Saviano: Ethics as the Science of Movement

In Naples, in the early 2000s, lives Roberto Saviano. He lives in a part of the city called Quartieri Spagnoli, considered to be a dodgy neighbourhood. One day, he decides to look out of his window and understand what is going on down there in the streets: to pick up a pen, and write what he sees, thinks, discovers, knows.
Let’s stop right here for a minute. I have just described a number of actions, some of which are physical and some of which are mental. However, they are all still actions insofar as they involve movement. I wanted to flag that up, later you will understand why, now, we can go on with the story.

Little by little, what Roberto is writing becomes a book entitled Gomorrah. The book is an analysis of the ‘Camorra’ (one of the several different flavours in which the Italian Mafia can come). It is 2006, Gomorrah is published and unexpectedly sells a huge number of copies. As I am sure you will understand, denouncing the Camorra is not the safest thing one can do. However, Roberto also goes a step further. One day, he travels to Casal di Principe (a town near Naples, which, back then at least, was basically ruled by the Camorra, and where it is an unwritten law not to mention the name of the Boss in public), he steps on a stage, he talks about the Camorra and the Bosses of the town, and, most importantly, he says the following: “Francesco Schiavone, the Zagarias, Antonio Iovine [the Bosses]: go away! You don’t belong here! Stop being part of this place! We will kick you out, you are nothing!”.
Let’s stop again for a minute. Like before, I just made another list of actions, a list of concrete movements. Keep this in mind.

Back to the story: those words change Roberto’s life once and for all. Someone in the Camorra probably decides that Roberto has to die. We don’t know exactly how that worked or if anyone ever said that, but it is obvious: Roberto is risking his life. That day, for the first time, he is assigned a security escort. “How long is this gonna last sir?” asks Roberto to one of the guards. “Nah, it is not a big deal…a few days maybe,” he answers. It is now 2016: 10 years have passed. Roberto Saviano has been under protection for 10 years now (October 2006 – October 2016). That is roughly 3650 days in which he couldn’t do anything (unless it was planned at least two days in advance), in which he couldn’t have fixed schedules, in which he couldn’t see anyone too often (in order to prevent that person from becoming a target). Since October 2006, the world, for him, has basically been a big and colourful jail cell.

This brings me to the key point I want to make here: Ethics, as Italian philosopher Leonardo Caffo (p.20-23) suggests, is the science of movement.

Let’s start from the following assumption: everyone knows that what Roberto did was good. Most people admire him; he was able to do what we all should do, and which we don’t, for many different reasons. In such cases, therefore, if we all already know what the right thing to do is, it would seem pointless for Ethics to be dedicated to further studying what the right thing to do is. This is because it suffices that we feel it; we have, at least, strong faith in strong intuitions about it.

So, what are the questions that Ethics should ask and try to answer? Now is when we go back to movement. Although we know that Roberto did the right thing when he looked up out of the window, picked up the pen, wrote what he saw, went to Casal di Principe, stepped on the stage, denounced the Camorra – there is still something we really don’t know and is thus worth investigating: why did he do it? Why do human beings (sometimes) do the right thing?

Hopefully, you should now see what I mean when I say that ethics is the science of movement: Ethics should study what it is that makes us literally move towards what is good (or what is wrong depending on how things go). What energy pushed Roberto to do what he did? Another way of putting this is that Ethics does not study what constitutes a good act, Ethics studies what the conditions are for the possibility of a good act to be possible in the first place. (These are, as Caffo notes, the same conditions that allow me to ask these questions now and allow you to reason on these issues as you read.)

In this sense, instead of a prescriptive science, Ethics becomes an aesthetic contemplation of human action (movement). As Aesthetics studies the way in which we perceive things, Ethics studies the way in which we do them. In Ethics, and in the contemplation its enquiry constitutes, we can find wonder and, as little as we might eventually understand of those conditions of possibility I mentioned above, at least we can understand that they do exist.

Through this sense of wonder, we can, however, surely understand one thing: that for all the evil there is in the world (where ‘evil’ is understood not as a malign entity, but as chaos, as opposed to order), for some reason we cope with it and we manage not to kill (or push, or insult, etc.) each other every morning when we meet on the bus to work. Conceiving of Ethics as a science of movement makes us appreciate that we are part of a group that has worked out a complex normativity that makes life (both as survival and as an effort to flourish) possible. In his second book, Zero Zero Zero, Roberto quotes the Bulgarian poet Blaga Dimitrova, whose words draw attention to how actions like those of Roberto are possible because life is only possible if we are together. Our actions only make sense as long as we are part of a group; there is no such thing as an action which ends in ourselves.

GRASS by Blaga Dimitrova:

I’m not afraid

they’ll stamp me flat.

Grass stamped flat

soon becomes a path.

Like Dimitrova’s unafraid speaker, even if one day Roberto were killed, he and humankind will have won already.

About the author

Giuseppe VicinanzaGiuseppe Vicinanza was born in Milan in 1996. After having lived for 19 years in the same house in the same city, he moved to England to study at the University of Exeter. While his high school studies followed the ‘scientific’ track of the Italian school system, he’s now a second year student in Philosophy and Politics. In his free time he plays  football and works as a waiter.

Fancy reading more? Giuseppe recommends moving in the direction of:

If you speak Italian, then pick up Caffo’s book and read his article, ‘Etica’.

Read Saviano’s investigation into the Camorra or watch the trailer for the award winning film adaptation.

Check out Maurizio Ferraris’s brief history of ‘new realist’ philosophy.

 

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'[Y]ou do not need to conclude that what they are doing is wrong; you do not need to figure anything out; you can see that it is wrong'

Moral Sense and Sensibility

The last decade has seen a surge of interest in what philosophers call evaluative perception, the question of whether values are represented in perceptual experience in the same or similar manner to facts, where ‘perception’ denotes sensory awareness rather than cognitive understanding. To take the case of Picasso’s Guernica as an example: no one is disputing that the shapes and colours (lower-order properties) are perceived by means of the sense of sight; the dispute concerns whether its aesthetic properties (such as ugliness, violence, and dynamism) are represented in perceptual experience or whether they are inferred by the art critic from the combination of lower-order properties.

Aesthetic properties are one of the categories of higher-order properties and the relationship between higher-order and lower-order properties is usually understood in terms of supervenience, i.e. there can be no change in the aesthetic properties of Guernica without a change in the shapes or colours on the canvas. The contemporary debate includes moral properties and if the idea that wrongness might be represented in our perceptual experience in a comparable manner to redness seems preposterous, consider this example from Gilbert Harman:

“If you round a corner and see a group of young hoodlums pour gasoline on a cat and ignite it, you do not need to conclude that what they are doing is wrong; you do not need to figure anything out; you can see that it is wrong.”

The most interesting aspect of the idea that wrongness can be non-inferentially perceived is not its novelty, but its persistence – and its history has for some strange reason been ignored by most contemporary philosophers. The first link between sensory perception and morality was proposed by the Reverend Francis Hutcheson (an Irishman who spent most of his academic career at the University of Glasgow) in An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, In Two Treatises. This remarkable monograph, which was first published in 1725 and revised three times, established the basis of the new philosophical discipline of aesthetics in the first part and introduced moral sense theory in the second. Hutcheson considered the senses of beauty and morality as a sixth and seventh counterpart to the five ‘external senses’ of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste and the suggestion that human beings may have more than five sensory modalities is in fact much less implausible than it sounds.

By the criteria used for the five universally recognised senses, a dedicated sense organ and exteroception (sensitivity to external stimuli), equilibrioception (the sense of balance) is an uncontroversial sixth sense. Nor is five the minimum number of senses because the orthodox view amongst philosophers is that smell is not a discrete sense, on the basis that it fails to meet the criterion of exteroception. If moral properties can be perceived, there is therefore at least a possibility that this perception is made by means of a moral sensory modality. Hutcheson’s argument for the moral sense is surprisingly sophisticated given the biological knowledge available to him, but what his two monographs on the subject really show is that human beings have a faculty for the approval of benevolence in themselves and others, a faculty whose existence would not be explained until long after his death.

'Allegory of the Five Senses', Pietro Paolini
‘Allegory of the Five Senses’, Pietro Paolini

Charles Darwin had read the work of two of Hutcheson’s philosophical successors, David Hume and Adam Smith, and knew of Hutcheson through James Mackintosh’s The Progress of Ethical Philosophy, but the degree of his familiarity with Hutcheson’s work in general and moral sense theory in particular is not known. Darwin was, however, rigorous in referring to his sources and this suggests that he had not read Hutcheson, despite the remarkable similarity between his own conclusion and Hutcheson’s. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, which was first published in 1871, Darwin sets out to show that there is no fundamental difference between humans and animals and that human beings are animals, but of a higher kind.

He claims that moral sense or conscience is the most significant difference between human and non-human animals and that any animal possessed of both social instincts and well-developed intellectual powers would develop a moral sense. Although Darwin employs the terms ‘moral sense’ and ‘conscience’ as synonymous for most of his discussion, he distinguishes them in terms of temporal projection: the conscience is retrospective and the moral sense future-directed. Darwin makes a more convincing case for the moral sense than Hutcheson, but fails to distinguish ‘sense’ (a sensory modality) from ‘sensibility’ (a mental faculty) when he clearly intends the latter: human beings have a faculty for the approval of benevolence in themselves and others, a faculty that evolved through natural selection and was refined by habit and education.

Hutcheson’s eighteenth century idea of a moral sense thus became the idea of a moral sensibility in the nineteenth century and was then all but ignored until Robert Cowan, working at the same institution as Hutcheson, began publishing papers on perceptual intuitionism and ethical perception in 2013. Cowan has developed the link between perception and emotion and the lesson from Hutcheson and Darwin is that any ethical theory that does not account for the significance of human emotion, intuition, or sensibility is deeply flawed. In a parallel development, Stijn Bruers at Ghent University has argued that a significant number of apparently insoluble ethical dilemmas are moral illusions, where the illusion is caused not by the human perceptual apparatus, but by human emotions, which can exhibit the same resistance to top-down cognitive processes as perceptual illusions.

The Trolley Problem thought experiment, for example, reveals that fifty percent of respondents would push a lever that kills one human being in order to save five others, but that only ten percent would push a human being themselves to achieve the same result. There is no moral difference between the two actions and the different responses are attributed to the emotional resistance to pushing another person to his or her death. Are moral illusions important? Bruers thinks they can explain phenomena such as implicit racial bias and that once we understand such phenomena as moral illusions we will be able to adjust our own responses: once we recognise our emotional resistance, we realise we should either push twice or not at all. If he is right, we will be hearing a great deal more about moral illusions and moral perception in future.


About the author

Rafe McGregorRafe McGregor is the author of The Value of Literature, The Architect of Murder, six collections of short fiction, and one hundred and fifty magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at @rafemcgregor.


Philosophical senses tingling for more? Rafe recommends:

Reading more about the impact of perception, this time from colour.

Watching Robert Audi speak on moral perception.

Thinking about whether the examples raised in this short talk on gender bias are ‘moral illusions’.

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An abstract painting of a large oval. The top left of the oval protrudes up and around behind the full width of the oval. The base of the oval is yellow, and blurs into dark brown until the top right corner fans out from brown to white.'White Light Seems to be Coming Out', Sadamasa Motonaga

Is Trump a Postmodern Prophet? Post-Truth Politics Analysed

If 2016 is to be remembered for anything, then it ought to be remembered for ‘post-truth’ being the word of the year. It is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. It has been chosen due to its increased use in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.

How should the field of philosophy view this concept? Well, the notion of ‘truth’ has always been in its remit. However, the aspect that is most concerning is the prefix ‘post’. Post-truth appears to suggest that some in society have lost concern for truth or simply do not think it has any use vis-à-vis politics. This is surely concerning. However, the field of philosophy may find its defence of truth wanting when there is so much disagreement amongst its adherents and practitioners as to the status of ‘truth’.

I believe the answer to how philosophy should answer post-truth politics may be found in John Caputo’s latest work, Truth: The Search for Wisdom in the Postmodern Age. I will argue that the election of Donald Trump exemplifies the postmodern definition of truth. Furthermore, I will argue that Trump shows aspects of the postmodern way in his modus operandi. A resulting cause for concern regarding Trump’s presidency, therefore, will be if individuals don’t understand how to challenge a post-truth prophet.

The postmodern definition of truth is defined by Caputo as:

‘[…] turning on the idea of the event. Events are disconcerting, but they do not spell pure chaos. The event allows for reinvention while the forces lined up against it aim at preventing the event.’ 1 

To understand this definition, we must turn to three influential ideas that distil the postmodern outlook: hermeneutics, language games and paradigm shifts.

Caputo defines ‘hermeneutics’ as the theory of interpretation2. The important principle that hermeneutics offers for our discussion is that ‘nothing is ever context – free and nothing is immune to being recontextualized’3. Here, we begin to see how politics can become destabilised. A president’s achievements can be understood in myriad ways: diplomatic cooperation can be seen as globalism, economic success can be seen as only benefiting the few, political experience can be seen as out of touch and seeking peace can be seen as weakness. Trump was elected due to an interpretation of the state of America that people believed was truthful. His interpretation may not have been truthful. It may have been an interpretation that played on the emotions of the American people. However, he stayed with it. He kept on arguing that his interpretation of America’s problems and how to solve them problems was correct.

How does one respond to an interpretation that appears to be untrue? Caputo offers some answers. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge what is considered ‘true’ on the hermeneutic account. To say something is true on this account is to say: ‘[…] this is the best interpretation we have, our best take on the truth, our best perspective’4. Importantly, however, though ‘there is no truth without interpretation, having an interpretation does not make it true’5. Thus, though Trump articulated an interpretation – like we all must on this account – his having an interpretation does not make it true.

Consequently, individuals who wish to challenge Trump must learn the art of interpretation. For Caputo, this entails the following: ‘Interpretation requires what we variously call judgement, discernment, or insight. We have to be judicious, skilled in adjudicating competing perspectives and in negotiating differences’6. What should we take from this? Individuals will have interpretations of matters that may differ from your own individual interpretation. It is because interpretation is part of truth that one must learn how to better interpret the situation. To prevent a bad interpretation becoming widespread, one must challenge it with a better interpretation. If Trump’s America is a bad interpretation of the truth, then to argue for a better interpretation with judgement, discernment and insight would be one way in which you could challenge Trump.

The second facet of the postmodern way is ‘language games’. This notion was proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Language games refer to the discourse that is proper to any rule-governed activity. An example of a language game would be politics. Understanding politics as a language game can be seen in the tradition of transparency for presidential candidates. Trump did not release his tax returns which meant that he broke with a tradition of transparency that goes back 40 years. What, then, ought to be the reaction when the rules of the political language game appear to be broken, as in the case of Trump?

One solution offered is ‘to keep the rules flexible and reinvented and to stress the ‘family resemblance’ among the games’7. The concept of ‘family resemblance’ can be seen with the language game of politics and economics. For example, Lord Young argued in 2013 that a recession ‘[. . .] can be a good time to grow a business’ as ‘[. . .] labour can be cheaper’. This may be correct in the language game of economics, in the sense that is it economically sound. However, politically speaking the language was seen as unfitting. In regards to Trump, his language throughout his campaign was seen as unethical, particularly in reference to banning muslims and counter-terrorism measures. The solution offered in the face of these comments is that a discourse could be proposed which bridges the language game of ethics and the language game of politics. A resemblance between the two fields can be argued. It could be argued that ethics concerns how best to make decisions, and that politics is surely how best to make decisions beyond the individual. There is, therefore, clearly a semblance between these two fields.

To keep the rules flexible and stress the resemblance amongst language games is a suitable response to Trump for the following reason. When consensus is broken and a vacuum is filled with an individual with no penchant for the rules then a suitable response must be offered. Merely stating the broken rules of the political language game again will not work. A suitable response by those who disagree with Trump is to argue against his rule breaking or to show how their rule breaking is better for the community. Some would argue that no rules should be broken. However, if there is a lack of thinking in the language game of politics, then the response for those who oppose Trump ought to be one that reflects on the nature of the game itself.

The final aspect of the postmodern way is the notion of paradigm shifts. Thomas Kuhn proposed the notion in relation to how we view scientific truth. Kuhn’s hypothesis proposes:

‘[…] that the state of scientific research at any given moment is organized around the prevailing paradigm […] [where] A paradigm is like an interpretive framework or a language game; it supplies a stable matrix for particular practices.’ 8

An example of a paradigm shift occurring in science would be Darwin’s theory for the field of biology. In politics, one would have to credit Trump in ushering through a paradigm shift (whilst acknowledging, of course, that the change may not necessarily be a good change).  Paradigm shifts normally result in a crisis. How does one deal with that ensuing crisis caused by Trump?

To answer such a question it is important to understand the problem. The problem is that ‘crises are not resolved with rules, because it is the rules that are in crisis’9. This way of thinking is hard to understand. The solution offered by Caputo is quite simple; he argues that ‘they are resolved with discernment, judgement and interpretive acumen’10. Simple answers will not do. Intelligent and well thought out analysis needs to be offered in this crisis. In order to crystallise the path we have taken in this analysis the following questions need to be answered.

A digitally created, black-and-white, pointillist trio of images of Donald Trump growing in size from right to left.
‘Untitled’, Sam Beet

Answering the Postmodern Prophet

Does Trump actually qualify for the title of a postmodern prophet? Can an understanding of the postmodern definition of truth be used to defeat him? I would argue that the answer is yes to both of these questions.

He is a postmodern prophet because he can be understood via the three ways that distil the postmodern way. Firstly, hermeneutics calls for interpretative skill, because truth is not without interpretation. Trump has articulated an interpretation that resonates with large swathes of the American public, thus, his interpretation ought to be respected insofar as it potentially reflects something large swathes of the American public know to be true. However, his interpretation is not de facto the right interpretation. Consequently, a better interpretation can potentially be offered. Secondly, language games call for an adequate response to the appearance of rules being broken. If the rules of politics have been broken with Trump then the rules of politics must become more flexible. A politics needs to be offered in response to Trump. This requires flexible thinking. Lastly, are paradigm shifts. Trump has caused a paradigm shift in politics. Shifts often result in a crisis.

This crisis can be resolved. Trump is an event and ‘events are disconcerting, but they do not spell pure chaos. The event allows for reinvention while the forces lined up against it aim at preventing the event’11. Trump’s election is a call for reinvention. Old ways of thinking that are rigid no longer work. If one understands the three facets of the postmodern way, one can come to understand the event that is Trump. If not, then perhaps chaos reigns.

On the other hand, the notion that chaos will reign if Trump is not met with an adequate response may seem hyperbolic. The antithesis of chaos would be order. One way in which order is achieved in the political language game is the implementation of an ideology. A clear and consistent ideology allows for exposure, as to the merits and demerits of the particular ideology. In America, there is a specific ideology that democratic presidents will implement. Likewise, with republican presidents a specific ideology will be implemented. The order that is achieved is via the ideal symbiosis that both parties would achieve as they challenge and debate one another. The goal is to find compromises in policies that when implemented will serve the country’s best interests.

Trump’s impending presidency is being presented as a disturbance in this symbiosis. The reason for this difficulty is apparently the following:

Donald Trump fits no simple ideological framework. The presidential candidate collects thoughts from across the spectrum. Added together, however, his ideas represent a sharp departure from many of the Republican Party’s values and priorities dating back half a century or more.”

Furthermore, it has also been reported:

To many people in the party, Trump’s ideas lack intellectual cohesion, but together they reflect the instincts of a dealmaker. He arrives at positions guided less by philosophy than visceral reactions to problems of the moment.”

The aforementioned quotes lend credence to the position of Trump as a postmodern prophet. History details prophets as right or wrong and even right and wrong. How are we to judge Trump? For some, the answer may be that of Pilate’s to Christ: ‘Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all’12.

Michael Sonne achieved a 2.1 in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool. He has a keen interest in Philosophy of Religion and Existentialism. Furthermore, he is interested in the notion of culture being favoured over politics.

Piqued by Post-Truth? Michael recommends:

John D. Caputo, (2013), Truth: The Search for Wisdom in the Postmodern Age, Penguin, London.

Jacob Stevens, (18th November 2016), http://www.newstatesman.com/world/north-america/2016/11/donald-trumps-success-built-ruins-third-way

Jeff Guo (November 8 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/08/a-new-theory-for-why-trump-voters-are-so-angry-that-actually-makes-sense/?utm_term=.a40d74b6176b

Jacob T. Levy, (November 30 2016), https://niskanencenter.org/blog/authoritarianism-post-truth-politics/

 

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