Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Shoe Story by Lesley Chamberlain

Be warned; you may need to read this book slowly, or (at least) twice, but it will be worth it. Its starting point is Boots with Laces (1886) by van Gogh…


Written with beautifully crafted enthusiasm, this book finds, in a pair of old boots, a key to developments and issues in the last century and a half of philosophy, religion and art. Chamberlain takes the reader on a breathless intellectual ride, glimpsing interlocking influences and references as they fly by – Hegel, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Heidegger, Schapiro, Derrida and many, many others have parts to play in this story.

This brief review cannot start to do justice to the subtle complexities of the story that is traced here, and I shall not attempt to do so. Suffice to say that it grows out of van Gogh’s concern to depict the earthy, particular hardships of real life, rather than anything idealized. Life is here, in a working person’s boots. And this insight was to be hugely influential for Heidegger, who also emphasized the concrete reality of ‘being-here,’ of being thrown into a particular set of circumstances in life, and who craved the simplicity and solid rootedness of rural life, in contrast to an ephemeral, rootless cosmopolitanism.

What is abundantly clear, throughout this book, is that art has to be taken seriously as a way to engage with the experienced truth of life. As the author puts it: ‘There has to be a hunger for truth that we bring to art, otherwise it will only be entertainment.’ (p.170)

I was particularly interested to see how van Gogh can be used as an interpretive key to the early work of Heidegger, and to his perception that the whole of western philosophy need to be re-routed, re-grounded and made solid; that one needs to find a secure place to put one’s feet (or boots). Heidegger’s thought was infused with a sense of place and the simple lederhosen-wearing life of his mountain retreat and the village of his birth and this emphasis on simplicity, on knowing where you belong, and on the truth of one’s existence as related to a sense of belonging, is one of the great attractions of Heidegger, particularly for those who are suspicious of truth in the form of intellectual abstractions. This book explores the impact of this particularity and physicality on our understanding of both art and philosophy.

Chamberlain’s strength lies in the history of ideas, showing influences and making connections, rather than in teasing out philosophical arguments, and she is sometimes rather quick in offering evaluative judgements and summaries that might benefit from further explanation.  But perhaps that is inevitable in a book that tries to cover so much ground. Almost every paragraph could benefit from further explanation, but the author keeps to her story rather as a ‘sat nav’ keeps to a route, not by going straight, but by constantly correcting minor deviations, resisting the temptation to follow any one of the myriad opportunities to digress. Her style is one that is part stream of cultural consciousness, part evangelical preacher. You sense her enthusiasm as she rushes headlong from one thinker or encounter to the next. The book is more a syllabus for a lifetime to study than a single story. Frustratingly, there is no index, so it is difficult to go back and pick up on particular references.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the Philosophy of Art, and in the cultural and intellectual movements of the 20th century. So far, I’ve only read it once, slowly. I’ll need to re-visit it soon.


Friday, 9 May 2014

Natural Selection and a mistaken view of neuroscience


I am utterly frustrated by those who either suggest directly, or imply that the self is nothing other than neural activity.  My frustration comes from the fact that such views go against the most fundamental features of natural selection and almost suggest (although those propounding them would be horrified to hear it) some sort of deus ex machina who, for reasons best known to himself, chose to increase the capacity of the human brain.

Communication and social interaction, with the development of signs and of language, provided – and continue to provide – the context in which natural selection favours the development of mental capacity.  It is because those better able to communicate and identify one another, make decisions about social action and so on, were able to survive in a competitive world, that the brain capacity which favoured such sophistication was increased. 

To suggest otherwise requires belief in some external force that appears to have determined that hominids should have larger and larger brains. Sorry, but – if natural selection is a valid way of looking at evolution – it just doesn’t work that way.  Change requires context and competition, and in terms of the development of those aspects of the brain that control thought and language, that context is personal and social.  It is because we flourish as individuals and as a species if we think and communicate, that brains develop over time.

It is, of course, an iterative process. Brain size enables more sophisticated communication, and the success of that communication enables brains to increase – gradually, of course, over many generations.  But, if any additional evidence for this is needed, we need only reflect on the way in which neuroscience has shown how parts of the brain enlarge to accommodate particular stimulus and experience.  The brain is plastic, not fixed; it grows and will change over evolutionary time.  But it does so as a response, not as a cause.

Hence, to say that you are ‘nothing but’ neural activity – as though the whole personal and social fabric of life were but some epiphenomenon of the firing of neurons – is sheer nonsense. What happens in the brain is, obviously, intimately and necessarily linked to each and every personal and social action and trait; just as muscular and skeletal activity is linked to every movement of the body. But that absolutely does NOT imply that the brain is the prior or only reality, and all else but a popular or conventional way of describing brain activity; quite the opposite.  What happens in the brain mirrors and continues to make possible what happens to us as persons and as social agents.


This popular and ‘reductive’ misconception of neuroscience is not just a matter of putting the cart before the horse, its having a cart with no horse at all – and that is a recipe for going nowhere, and for having no explanation for how the cart arrived in its present position!  Let Darwin come to the rescue of commonsense on this one!

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Goldfinch


I've just finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. It is rare blending of action narrative with profound insights into a whole range of issues - including the meaning and impact of art, the problem of evil and whether the world makes any sense morally.

While enjoying the narrative, I really didn't want to put the book down. It is a book that can make you wince, ache, and long for some sort of positive outcome for the characters, as they land themselves in so many hopeless situations, with a plot that keeps twisting with surprises right up to the end.

But having read the final pages - with their reflections on the 'middle zone', that Tartt has her narrator describe as a 'polychrome edge between truth and untruth', a zone 'where beauty comes into being' and where art, magic and love exist - I want to go back and start to unpack the narrative again, exploring the many ways in which her characters exemplify the themes which become condensed in those final pages.

It is one of those books that suggests to me that philosophy can sometimes fail to grasp or express what is most profound in life, simply because it tends to stay within a world of banal fact and logic. To explore the full range of human aspiration and folly, one needs to be open to individual actions and motives - as conveyed by engagement with a narrative - while also holding open all the possibilities that art and literature offer by way of inspiration.

You could almost use this as a set text for examining the relationship between morality and metaphysics, or the impact of art on human self-understanding. It also provides a ruthlessly honest mirror to human failings, and the way in which random events and circumstances shape our lives.
But don't get me wrong; this is certainly not a book that has philosophy masquerading as narrative. The characters display the whole range of human folly and aspiration, their choices and confusions are believable and you are drawn into the narrative by its very pace and realism. But, best of all - it is beautifully written and utterly readable!

I don't often give a direct plug for a book - but I really think this is so exceptionally good, that I have no hesitation in recommending it.