Friday, 4 February 2011

Chris Port Blog #78. On the Need to Relearn the Socratic Method.

© Chris Port, 2010

Our political, economic and education systems have failed, demonstrably and disastrously. The underlying cause has been in the hands of government and business for the last decade. It is that we have promoted poorly educated men and women into positions of power. By poorly educated I mean poor thinkers, pseudo-intellectuals, those unable to think for themselves.

It is not enough for these people to claim that their hands are tied with red tape. If they are unable to untie the knots themselves then they should ask for help and get out of the chair. Usually it is not the central directives in themselves that cause the red tape. It is their tick box implementation by unimaginative, untrustworthy and untrusting bureaucrats who used that same red tape to consolidate their power and feel naked without it. They are insecure, ignorant and intolerant of awkward questions. These pseudo-intellectuals have gagged debate and strung the silent majority along to save their own necks. Those necks must now be called to account.

British management is obsolete. It is bogged down in its own dictatorial ‘accountability’ systems. These are actually nothing of the sort. They are designed to pass the buck down while creaming off at the top. Many of these managers are not intellectually up to the job. The world is evolving at an exponential rate and centrally-imposed top-down systems are unable to keep up with the change. The reign of the terrible lizards is over. But still these managerial dinosaurs hang on, agonizingly, waiting for their pensions, while the mammals of tomorrow watch from their burrows.

But don’t become bewitched by the language of analogy. This is just a shortcut to meaning. I need to put it more simply. Don’t become bewitched by anything. British management failed because, through intellectual corruption and incompetence, it became bewitched by abstract numbers. Those abstract numbers, those utterly unrealistic Stakhanovite ‘targets’, were cynically selected and incompetently analyzed simply so that craven bureaucrats and politicians could ‘prove’ that they were doing a good job to a biznobabbled public.

But the truth is not in numbers. The truth is in the world around us. If the numbers do not accurately describe that world, then it is the numbers that are wrong. Those who trade in numbers at the expense of people become slaves to the data machine. Their analysis was unscientific and unreasonably selective. They used statistics to justify their decisions instead of falsifying them. They asked the wrong questions and, unsurprisingly, got the wrong answers. This was done to justify their jobs at the taxpayer’s expense. This number-crunching neck-saving must stop. Awkward questions must be asked, and answered. Not tomorrow, not later today, but now, in your heads. That’s where it starts.

Any manager who cannot give an honest, unevasive and logically consistent answer to a reasonable work-related question is either unfit for the job, or their superior is, and they should be reported and suspended pending investigation with immediate effect. The rest is lies, damned lies and statistics. We must relearn the Socratic method. We must stop insisting that tick box answers are right. They are demonstrably not. Instead, we must learn to ask the right questions.

If you want it in a soundbite, we need management who can think on their feet, not blink in their seat. That is politics. That is economics. That is education. Philosophy is thinking about thinking. Get your thinking right, and you’re more likely to get your questions right. Get your questions right, and you’re more likely to look at the most useful numbers. Now go away and read about Socrates then come back with some awkward questions.

“I don't want any yes-men around me. I want everyone to tell me the truth - even if it costs him his job.” ~ Samuel Goldwyn.

[From an earlier discussion thread].

'Columbo is my favourite detective, and Socrates my favourite philosopher. They're both model teachers.'

Pseudo-intellectuality or ignorance - which is worse?

Pseudo-intellectuality. Ignorance can be a motivation to learn. Pseudo-intellectuality is usually just the motive to impress. Though sometimes it's a half-way house. We sometimes need to punch above our weight to get into the debate. We learn after getting knocked down a few times. And after a while, once you realize that you can never land a knockout blow, you start to appreciate the nimble footwork involved.

I was thinking about it rather differently although I came to the same conclusion. Pseudo-intellectuality is at its worst not when it's a motive to impress, but when people genuinely believe in what they say.

When people use logic without first providing a solid basis for their argument, they can go off in all sorts of crazy directions and truly believe in what they say. And philosophy can also lead to bad places if misinterpreted - its better not to have read it at all than to have misunderstood it.

This isn't meant in some judgmental way. There's plenty of philosophy I haven't understood, and I actually took the decision to give it up rather than to misunderstand it, for these very reasons. I will go back to it when I feel I can really get something from it.

Socrates took a different tack. He was a pseudo-ignoramus. By asking a relentless series of Columbo-like faux-naif questions, he would eventually force the pseudo-intellectual to expose the inconsistencies in their story. And he usually landed a knock-out blow. The tyrants tried to defeat him, not by logic, but by trying to get blood on his hands. They ordered him to take part in bringing an innocent man for execution. He quietly refused on principle. His death was highly ironic. His friend asked the Oracle whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle replied no. Socrates believed that he was not wise because his philosophy proceeded from a starting point of ignorance. He questioned a lot of so-called wise men but concluded that they were pseudo-intellectuals. Socrates was the wisest man because he was aware of his own ignorance. The so-called wise men, having been made to look foolish, conspired to accuse Socrates of corrupting the minds of youth. He was, of course, found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. A model philosopher and teacher ;)

"I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others." ~ Socrates

"When people use logic without first providing a solid basis for their argument, they can go off in all sorts of crazy directions and truly believe in what they say." This could actually be a good description of me playing chess ! :)

That's exactly what chess is - it's a discussion...every move is asking somebody a question, asking them to back up their argument. When you get to the hole in their argument you can pick it apart... and probably in the process you're realise how full of holes your own argument was :)

Chris...that story is great. I knew Socrates was executed but I didn't know why.

People who say we are gradually losing our freedoms would do well to remember just how restricted people were in the past. I think it's part of human nature to believe that ones' own generation is doomed...if we didn't have something to fight against we'd feel pretty useless I guess.

Fair point. It's not so much the doom that gets me down. It's the lack of fight in others, particularly in teaching. Eventually you just get care-fatigue, give up and wait for death yourself. Or leave. So I’ve left. Just been trying to reinvigorate myself doodling some notes ‘On the Need to Relearn the Socratic Method.’ The first draft is written as vaguely as possible – not a falsifiable fact or figure to be seen. It’s oratorical rhetoric rather than a thesis (also pompous, pretentious and pseudo-intellectual, but I needed the fun). I’ll tone it down into something more naive and Socratic later :)

Don't they say ignorance is bliss? Meanwhile, I have no idea what you're talking about.

Good ;) Ignorance is the best place to start. So long as you don't wish to remain ignorant and start asking awkward questions. If you don't, then I envy you your bliss (but worry about you having a vote!). People are, of course, free to remain ignorant. But if they do so then their opinions must, as a consequence, be of little or no value to any debate on that matter. Although possibly of mild curiosity. I often wonder what a cat thinks. Sorry, but you can't have it both ways :)

'Democracy is a foolish political system because the fools outnumber the wise.' Look at the recent ‘poppy-burning’ provocation and the number of fools blundering into the flames, including students (who would benefit from reading a few books before burning them). 'Giving a fool the vote is like giving a child a loaded gun. It is irresponsible and dangerous.' Discuss. With irony please ;)

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." ~ Benjamin Franklin, 1759

"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt." ~ John Philpot Curran, 1790

"But you must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing." ~ Andrew Jackson, 1837

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." ~ Wendell Phillips, 1852

Basically, don't trust the bastards. If you don't keep them on their toes, they'll sneak chains around your ankles.

But, aren't pseudo-intellectuals also ignorant?

Also, one could argue that it's ignorant to call someone 'pseudo-intellectual' and vice-versa. :D

Like the first comment; dislike the second :)

pseudo-intellectualism is on a par with arrogance, no? I am not sure you can say definitively which is worse, because they are case specific :P Sometimes being ignorant to something is a good thing, other times it might kill you. Sometimes being arrogant might get you out of a situation that modesty would have landed you smack dap in the middle of...

I can only really say that being arrogantly ignorant (or ignorantly arrogant) is worse than being just ignorant or arrogant alone heh

Regarding M’s observation on “first providing a solid basis for their argument”, the problem here is with what is actually meant by the words “solid” and “basis”.

By “solid”, do we mean “physical matter” or “logically sound”? By “basis”, do we mean an axiom, a premise or a supposition?

“Physical matter” is actually (I think) a good place to start a philosophical argument. While there are many theoretical objections to trusting our senses, many of these objections turn out to be ultimately insincere. I may philosophically question such things as “I” and “height” and “concrete”, but ask me to test those doubts by stepping off the roof and I’ll probably change the subject! Ironically (in terms of the starting place for an argument), physical solidity is characterized by structural rigidity and resistance to change.

“Logically sound” is more problematic.

By “logic” we mean either “inductive reasoning” (drawing general conclusions from specific examples), “deductive reasoning” (drawing conclusions from definitions and axioms), “analysis” (examining component parts) and “synthesis” (combining component parts).

By “sound” we mean a valid (truth-preserving) argument with true premises and so a true conclusion. Valid arguments can proceed from false premises and this is the point that I think M is making. However, he does not propose any suggestion for proof. How do we prove that our starting point is ‘true’ and (more importantly) what do we mean by ‘true’?!

An “axiom” is a proposition that is considered to be self-evident. Its truth is taken for granted and serves as a starting point. Precisely for these reasons, an axiom cannot be proved.

A “premise” is a supposition from which conclusions are derived. An argument can be valid even if its premises are false. However, if the premises are true, and the argument is valid, then the conclusion must also be true.

A “supposition” is a premise assumed for the sake of argument but not necessarily believed to be true. Instead, they are used for finding out what is true.

An easy answer to what we mean by “true” might be that we mean ‘consistent’. At this point, it may be tempting to turn to mathematics which is, by necessity, consistent and capable of proofs. However, Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem proved that, in logic and mathematics, it is impossible to prove consistency without using methods from outside the system!

(Quoting from an earlier post, J). Even Descartes attempt to reduce extreme scepticism to an undeniable truth, 'Cogito ergo sum' (I think therefore I am') fails. It posits the existence of a singular identity that is continuous from one thought to the next. Science has shown this to be wrong. There is no such thing as 'I'. Consciousness is an emergent property of particles and processes which are, in themselves, insentient and in a constant state of flux. It would now be more accurate to say 'A thought, therefore something having it'. Memories are thoughts in the present, not direct access to an 'I' in the past. But even if all knowledge is uncertain or ultimately meaningless, this is not the same as giving a despairing equivalence to all judgments. Some ideas are demonstrably more probable or useful than others, and some arguments are more logical or helpful than others. The best arbiter I have found between competing ideas or arguments is Wittgenstein's 'language games'. Basically, know which game you're playing and how that game works. Or change the game.

So, in summary, there is no ‘solid basis’ for argument or belief, only solid consequences (like painfully broken legs, the ‘proof of the roof’, so to speak). There are just language games. But some premises are better than others, and some arguments are better than others. As I’ve said before, faux-naif ignorance and the asking of awkward questions is the best way to learn ;)

Turning now to chess :) There is some merit in J’s analogy comparing chess with a logical discussion. However, I would argue that there are also severe limitations to this analogy. Chess, like mathematics, is a closed system. If you don’t follow the rules, you’re not playing the game. This means that the discussion itself is correspondingly limited.

Leaping forward to A's observation about being ‘case-specific’, it depends on why you’re playing the game. Although the ostensible reason is to win, there are other reasons and contexts. Personally I don’t so much play to win as play to think about other things. Chess (with its certainties) clears my mind of uncertainty and allows me to refocus on other problems off the board. Personally I dislike quiet single-minded chess. I prefer physicality and distracting surroundings. My ideal chess games have been played drunk, with a drunk opponent, in noisy pubs, surrounded by sexy dancing girls and a bemused audience gradually getting sucked into the game and sucking their breath in disapproval at every move. Chess as theatre rather than chess as logic. Whether I win or lose is largely irrelevant so long as I play an entertaining game. That’s my story anyway J, and I’m sticking to it!

In summary here, I’m arguing for philosophy as a fun spectator sport best conducted drunk in pubs, rather like a friendly game of pool. The fluffed shots, the near misses and the jammy flukes are as much a part of the game as the skill. Playing a grim potting machine who clears the table while you sit nursing a stale pint is hardly fun.

Finally (!) turning more case-specifically to A’s observations, I think he’s mostly got it right (notice the condescending ‘mostly’). It’s always case-specific. Ignorance is good if it is used to provoke debate. Arrogance is good if it is used to provoke debate. And, just as we have faux-ignorance, we can also have faux-arrogance. Alongside Devil’s Advocate I would also posit Devil’s Arrogance. The things I can’t stand are apathy, intransigence and lack of humour or irony. Sneering and point-scoring are ungentlemanly too. That’s why it’s usually best to avoid these types of conversations with women or religious fundamentalists. They take it far too personally and seriously, and argue from belief rather than naughtiness.

“The difference between men and women is the difference between right and right. Men want to do right. Women want to be right. To most men, argument is sport. Win or lose, it’s the game that counts and laughing about it down the pub afterward over a pint. To most women, argument is religious war. Nobody really knows what you’re fighting over. But they are convinced of their righteousness as an article of faith (if not logic). Have you ever tried having a laugh and a beer with a victorious or defeated self-worshipping zealot? Avoid argument with such fanatical creatures AT ALL COSTS. Any victory will be pyrrhic and any defeat will be punic. Women desire a Carthaginian peace. Let them feel right. Then just quietly go away and do the right thing... and hope that they don’t notice...” Discuss ;)

How do you justify this statement "In summary here, I’m arguing for philosophy as a fun spectator sport best conducted drunk in pubs, rather like a friendly game of pool." when you also say that you can't stand apathy?

Btw I also disagree that chess is a logical discussion, but it is a discussion nonetheless. It wasn't my analogy actually - I think you've got Matt and I confused, since you attribute his analogy to me, and mine to him (when I said that you need a solid basis for a logical argument)...but I'll come back to this later :)

Apathy is an absence of interest, enjoyment or emotion. Therefore, in order to engage the student, philosophy should be made as fun as possible.

As Brecht said about the role of amusement in educational theatre: "... the contrast between learning and amusing oneself is not laid down by divine rule... Theatre remains theatre, even when it is instructive theatre, and in so far as it is good theatre it will amuse."

I attributed comments as follows:

M "When people use logic without first providing a solid basis for their argument, they can go off in all sorts of crazy directions and truely believe in what they say." This could actually be a good description of me playing chess ! :)

J That's exactly what chess is - it's a discussion...every move is asking somebody a question, asking them to back up their argument. When you get to the hole in their argument you can pick it apart...and probably in the process you're realise how full of holes your own argument was :)

Possibly M was quoting an earlier post by you and I failed to pick this up? And yes, chess is a discussion. My point is that it is limited by one set of rules, and therefore a limited discussion. We learn how to play the game and win the game, but anything else (like an analogy for life, logic, military strategy, politics etc.) needs to refer to other languages games :)

I am interested to read that someone seems to be taking opinion, which is transient at best and certainly wholly subjective and is attempting to couch it in terms of right and wrong, albeit with admissions of condescention [sic]. Concepts of right and wrong come not just from logic but from a moralistic and/or emotional centre. This is why conversations with actors such as women and fundamentalists are to be avoided, since both are heavily biased towards feelings as opposed to thoughts.

However, there is more to life than logic, to quote my verbose friend, "I don't so much play to win as play to think about other things". The game of life doesn't have set boundaries, thus the literal translation of chess into conversation is somewhat limiting to the analogy. I am not entirely sure how you would go about literally translating bishop takes pawn, knight takes bishop and queen takes knight. Metaphorically, the bishop, pawn, knight and queen could all be interrelated concepts - they were laid up and played out in that order only because of player subjectivity. The edges of the board are analogous to the boundaries of reality. I think what J is really talking about is the translation of strategy from within a set of strictly defined boundaries to something much more quantum in nature, something underpinned by probability, something far less deterministic.

Conversation is (or can be) just as much of a game as chess. I will sometimes deliberately leave holes in my logic - if missed, if confronted or if countered, all 'moves' give me 'information' on which I can base future moves.

Wholism [sic] is as important as specialism since the whole is not always the sum of its parts, especially when the game is dynamic.

Although there are various epistemological categorizations that differentiate between ‘facts’ and ‘opinions’, I see very little (if any) valid meaningful distinction between facts, interpretations, thoughts and feelings. How would you take the following statement: “I feel pain.” Is it a fact, an interpretation, a thought, a feeling, or an opinion?

For example, if somebody honestly claimed “I feel pain”, and no patho-physiological cause or symptom could be empirically located, is the methodology wrong, is the thought wrong, is the feeling wrong, or is the opinion wrong?

Concepts of right and wrong have many different applications and, if we are playing more than a pub game, we need to be VERY clear which language game we are playing. If the emphasis is on ethics and morality, then this gets VERY complicated.

Qualities of subjectivity and transience are not, in themselves, sufficient reason for dismissing or disputing the truth-validity of a statement, only for questioning the scope and duration of its applicability.

My point about a chess game still stands. Chess is a logic game and, as such, is a form of conversation. But it is a limited conversation. Any symbolism must refer outside the game for its referents. Chess itself is completely deterministic. There is no scope in the game for randomness or uncertainty. This is why it has severe limitations as a metaphor for life which is chaotic, uncertain and not factual in any meaningful sense (facts are just selections used to create narratives; choose different facts and you get different narratives).

I now interpret / think / feel / opinionate that the debate would need to move into the epistemological problems inherent with bandying terms such as Objectivism / Subjectivism / Relativism / Sophisticated Objectivism / Sophisticated Subjectivism / Sophisticated Relativism before coming out the other side into much the same pub language games that I have already suggested. J, this is old ground for you from my dissertation so you will probably wish to skim the next few paragraphs (as indeed may all who dislike the precise – not excessive - number of words needed to pin down such slippery concepts!).

Excerpt from Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? © Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1999. (Instalment 1 of 7) Chapter 1: Introduction. (What are laughter, comedy and humour?). 

Simple Objectivism (Recognizing the rules of composition).

Simple objectivism regarding aesthetic judgments on a comic text depends simply upon the observer's recognition of the rules of composition and not on any supposed feelings aroused by them. Indeed, the satisfaction or pleasure experienced by the observer is supposed to arise from their skill in recognition.While the intentions of the comic artist may form a subtext of this recognition, they are simply one of the rules of composition. As David Cooper(1992) notes:

'Whatever the peculiar causal conditions entering into the creation of art, the artist's intentions being among them, the aesthetic features of the work are themselves independently perceivable. This gives the work a certain critical autonomy.' (Cooper, 1992, p.42).

However, Cooper then goes on to describe a basic problem with simple objectivism. The evaluative force of an aesthetic judgment claims more than that the text possesses certain qualities. It also claims that the text merits attention and thus ascribes a value which is not inherent in the text itself. Where does this value come from? One possible answer is that, while the rules of the text may be objectively observed, the values given to it may arise from a simple subjectivism.

Simple Subjectivism (I know what I like but do I need to know why?).

According to simple subjectivism, the aesthetic judgment does not depend upon the rules of composition in the text but in the pleasure or displeasure that perception of the text happens to arouse in the spectator.This implies that one spectator experiencing pleasure and another spectator experiencing displeasure from the same text would not be contradicting each other. However, as Cooper notes: 'we are normally expected to try to show that the judgment rests upon features which render our response a justifiable one'. (Cooper, 1992, p.244). By what rules, to what indisputable court of taste may we appeal to justify our judgment? Are all aesthetic judgments only relative to each other?

Simple Relativism (Is one judgment as good or as bad as another?).

Simple relativism (often referred to as dogmatic or vulgar relativism) proceeds from the rather pessimistic premise that, since we cannot incontrovertibly prove universal standards or values, all standards and values must logically be equally valid (or worthless). Cooper (1992) argues that this 'anything goes' approach is doubly inconsistent. It self-defeatingly allows for universalist theories and (as noted earlier in our treatment of comedy) also implies the existence of a supposed universal standard of which all aesthetic theories must fall short (cf. Cooper, 1992, p.358).

In Cultural Studies, Inglis (1993) also criticizes simple or 'vulgar' relativism for being inconsistent in two respects:

'(a) assuming its own moral supremacy (which is objectivist) and (b): 'It is pretty well impossible to find a culture which could possibly live in a self-enclosed way; certainly it is theoretically difficult to define what it would look like, let alone whether it would want to stay self-enclosed, given a choice.' (Inglis, 1993, p.134).

It seems then that, in their simple versions, theories of objectivism, subjectivism and relativism are all flawed by their lack of predictability. Objectivism cannot predict values, subjectivism cannot predict judgments and relativism cannot predict anything. It thus remains for us to consider whether a finer, more sophisticated version of one of these theories might be threaded through the eye of our aesthetic needle.

Sophisticated Objectivism (All in the imagination?).

Sophisticated objectivism was developed by the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant (1952) in his Critique of Judgment. In some ways, it is a fusion of simple objectivism with simple subjectivism. While Kant claimed that the judgment of taste demanded agreement from everyone without exception (a simple objectivist viewpoint) he also allowed that the determining factor of such a viewpoint was the feeling of contemplative pleasure or displeasure aroused in the mind of the spectator (a simple subjectivist viewpoint). Kant linked these two seemingly mutually exclusive viewpoints by giving this paradox the structure of an 'antinomy' (a contradiction existing between two apparently indubitable propositions). The key to understanding how these opposing viewpoints can co-exist is in Kant's emphasis on the 'free play' of the imagination which characterizes aesthetic judgments. In essence, this means that the spectator's imagination is free to introduce concepts which are not inherent in the text and then rationally defend such a judgment by reference to the feelings aroused by these concepts. Thus, as the twentieth-century philosopher Roger Scruton notes:

'The free play of imagination enables me to bring concepts to bear on an experience that is, in itself, 'free from concepts'. Hence, even though there are no rules of taste, I can still give grounds for my aesthetic judgment. I can give reasons for my pleasure, while focusing on the singularity which is its cause.' (Scruton, 1982, p.85).

An important consequence of Kant's 'free play' of the imagination is that different spectators can only be perceiving the same text in so far as they possess the same faculties of understanding and their imaginations operate identically. This may explain both the common characteristics of a comic audience and the difficulties involved in exporting a comic text to a different culture. When exposed to a comic stimulus, an audience seems to experience the sharing of a ubiquitous emotion which is, in essence, individualistic. Also, the apparently spontaneous response of laughter amongst a collection of individuals seems to occur in a highly predictable and synchronous manner (dependent upon the comic timing of the text and the performer). However, due to the ephemeral nature of laughter, it is difficult to refer to any particular feeling to justify one's assessment other than a sophisticated subjectivist perspective of what is pleasurable or displeasurable.

Sophisticated Subjectivism (Colours and aesthetics - 'seeing red'?).

Sophisticated subjectivism was skilfully defended by the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume (cited in Lenz, 1965). In Of the Standard of Taste, Hume drew an analogy between colour judgments and aesthetic judgments whereby even the subjectivist occurrence of colour in the observer's mind still allows for standards in assessing the appropriateness of particular colour judgments and the capacity of the observer to make such a judgment. For example, we would be sceptical of the colour judgment of someone who was known to be either blind or colour-blind (although we may derive humour from the incongruity of the situation - see Chapter 2 - An Incongruity of Theories).

It is worth remarking here that it was correct for Hume to attribute the occurrence of colour to subjectivism rather than objectivism. As the twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell (1967) showed in The Problems of Philosophy, we cannot say that objects 'possess' colour. Colour is simply the result of light-waves in one part of the spectrum being reflected off an object and into our eyes while light-waves in another part of the spectrum are absorbed either by the object itself or by the intervening medium. In astronomy, physicists use this technique (known as spectroscopy) to deduce the characteristics of interstellar phenomena. In comedy, however, the reflective occurrence of laughter does not tell us much about the nature of the comic text other than that we find it 'funny' (whatever that might mean).

While there is a relatively uncontentious agreement on colour judgments, this does not so clearly hold true for aesthetic judgments. Even if it did, this would not be equivalent to a claim of universalitythrough out all cultures and periods of history. By its very nature, a subjectivist mode of assessment must allow for the possibility that not all spectators will experience the same feeling at all times. As Cooper (1992) notes:

'Unlike the objectivist, a defender of subjectivism, including the sophisticated variety, cannot maintain that a judgment, if correctly made, must hold for everyone without exception who judges aesthetically... To those of us whose sensibilities may happen to be governed by totally different principles from the majority's - always a possibility for a subjectivist - the judgments of discriminating spectators within that majority can have no logical force.' (Cooper, 1992, p.245).

Pragmatic Relativism ('Local' truths).

The problem with simple or dogmatic relativism was that, in adopting a form of Nietzchean nihilism, it inadvertently implied that there ought to be a set of universal criteria which all aesthetic theories fail to meet. As noted earlier, how can we fail a theory for failing to include a non-existent quality? By way of contrast, pragmatic relativism does not condemn any one aesthetic judgment for failing to be universal. Nor does it imply that any aesthetic judgments should be universal by giving a despairing, post-modernist equivalence to all judgments. It simply recognizes the de facto existence of different aesthetic judgments, not only within a given culture but also between different cultures and periods of history. While aesthetic judgments are relative to distinct cultural practices, they are not objectivist (they do not demand agreement from everyone) and they are not subjectivist (they can be defended as impersonal, localized 'truths'). The main attraction of pragmatic relativism is that it is an essentially modest theory (it does not assert its supremacy over other useful theories) and allows us to be receptive to competing aesthetic judgments by emphasizing their differences rather than their similarities. The main failing of pragmatic relativism is that, in failing to acknowledge the superiority of any one mode of aesthetic judgment (including itself) it cannot arbitrate between competing judgments. Therefore, while pragmatic relativism may be useful in discussing the question of taste in humour, it is unable to provide us with any conclusion.

Despite the inherent inconclusiveness of pragmatic relativism, it is a nimble enough perspective to enable us to avoid the logical pitfalls which open up before each of the other perspectives discussed. We will therefore proceed to examine the question of taste using a sophisticated pragmatic relativistic perspective...

[End of extract].

The bit about women and religious fundamentalists is just being facetious by the way. Any attempt to debate it seriously would not be talking the same language. It is the language of wit that is sought, not the language of irritation. If you don’t find it funny, then it’s just a flat joke and nothing more :)

Sherlock Homes and his intellectual deductions about women... “I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind...the motives of women… so inscrutable… How can you build on such quicksand? Their most trivial actions may mean volumes… their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin.”

The way that chess is analogous to a discussion is this: take, for example, the Ruy Lopez - one of the most famous and commonly played openings:

1. e4 e5 (white takes a share of the centre, and black mirrors this, taking an equal share
2. Nf3... Nc6 (white threatens blacks central pawn so black defends it).
3. Bb5 (white threatens the knight which defends the pawn).

It is the third move which is similar to logic. Blacks e5 pawn is the point of the whole argument, so white finds ways to undermine that pawn by going to the very base of the 'house that Ruy built' and proving it to be unstable. This is a rather simplified analogy since actually this line is fine for black - but it functions as a metaphor for the Socratic Method. White doesn't directly attack the pawn, he attacks the structure which keeps the pawn in place to try to prove that black shouldn't have put it there in the first place.


"Apathy is an absence of interest, enjoyment or emotion. Therefore, in order to engage the student, philosophy should be made as fun as possible."

This is precisely why I don't understand what you mean. You say philosophy should be like a gentlemanly pub-sport, but this requires a certain degree of apathy when you compare it to the 'women & fundamentalist' (to generalise through your own metaphor) style of debate. Someone who can switch off their beliefs and not care so much if they win or lose is surely apathetic in the eyes of, say, a professional sportsmen? Not only that but you're against point scoring...which is surely one of the main themes in a pub sport? :)

Don't get me wrong, I also love the sport of debate...most likely I even create meaning for myself in subjects that I'm otherwise fairly apathetic to, just for the sake of banter. But there are some themes where apathy simply isn't an option - political and ethical themes, for example. To argue against war or breaches of human/animal rights simply for the sake of sport, not caring about the outcome, is to cheapen the theme and to take away of the seriousness of the situation. I think it's better to not debate at all rather than do this.

Wittgenstein’s family resemblance concept is probably the most useful idea to keep in mind here. Philosophical debate may resemble a sport rather than literally being a sport, as it is primarily a mental activity rather than a physical one. Perhaps the emphasis should be laid more on the idea of sportsmanship and spectatorship. A football match between England and Germany may be seen by the crowd as a matter of tribal pride, but such nationalism would be a distraction for the players on the pitch. Regardless of the symbolic stakes involved outside of the game, we expect the players to leave all that behind once they enter the game. Spectators wish to admire their skill and their sportsmanship, not their political beliefs. Grudge matches are ugly to watch and, while they may have a titillating grotesque voyeuristic quality, this is not what I look for in debates that I choose to play. Wikipedia puts it rather well I think:

Sportsmanship expresses an aspiration or ethos that the activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one's competitors. Being a "good sport" involves being a "good winner" as well as being a "good loser"

Just as to engage with dramatic theatre is to willingly suspend our disbelief, so to engage with the real world within philosophical debate is to willingly suspend our beliefs for the sake of argument. Otherwise we simply restate our beliefs without looking at them critically and afresh, rather like the politicians on Question Time who ignore the question and stick to a pre-prepared script. Philosophy is improvisation, not a ‘well-written play’, although we may write a good play based on the workshop. Suspension of belief does not trivialize important ethical issues, any more than suspension of disbelief to engage with profound drama is being flippant. Suspension of belief is not apathy. It is imagination.

Finally, I would argue that any paradoxes you identify need to be tolerated within the framework of Kant’s ‘antinomy’, a contradiction existing between two apparently indubitable propositions). See Sophisticated Objectivism and imagination. ‘The key to understanding how these opposing viewpoints can co-exist is in Kant's emphasis on the 'free play' of the imagination which characterizes aesthetic judgments. In essence, this means that the spectator's imagination is free to introduce concepts which are not inherent in the text and then rationally defend such a judgment by reference to the feelings aroused by these concepts.’

I have no problem with viewing chess as analogous to a discussion. But it is a limited discussion because it cannot change the language game or question its own rules, and any symbolic meaning is introduced from outside of the game rather than being part of it. That is why computers are good at playing chess but bad at discussing philosophy.

Philosophy is a game with rules. But the game and the rules can change in mid-sentence. Such is the power of thought.

Yeah it's like playing 'It' with my little sister.

"This is home you can't get me now!"
"But I thought you said that other place was home..."
"Yes it was but now this is. So there."

Brilliant analogy. A light bulb moment ;) When teaching drama to little sods, I used to send them away in groups to devise some anti-bullying obviousness or other, then ironically watch them subtly bully each other in groups (with exquisite plausible deniability). To keep them on track, I used to give them say 5 minutes then call out a countdown at minutely intervals. I once called out "Two minutes" then a minute later, "One minute". A child turned round, frowned at me, and said, "Hold on. You said we had two minutes a minute ago." To this day I can't work out whether that boy was a moron or a genius.

Without wanting to seem like an echo - this is similar to the discussion we were having about art/artists and motivations. It is also reminding me of several martial arts films where the common theme is that one cannot fill ones cup when it is already over flowing.

Apathy, or the state of indifference is actually a quite useful tool when trying to empty the cup or shed personal bias or see things from another perspective.

One could be personally motivated to win, to dominate, to lose, to learn, to take part, to investigate, to divert... one could also be externally motivated by coercion, violence, love...

Kids are cool for profound comments, I think it is because they still have a sense of wonder and because their ego/character has not fully formed yet, it doesn't get in the way as much as it does in adults :)

The tricky meanings of language again. I suspect that 'serenity' rather than 'apathy' may be more evocative of a zen state of mind. Kids are often funny because their id is not yet well-concealed, their ego is clumsy and their super-ego often catches you unawares. A perfect example of this was with a dangerously precocious 14 year-old 'queen bee' girl I met when supply teaching. The girl politics in her class were every teacher's nightmare. She had quite a confrontational reputation to protect. When I first met her, she gave me a long cool look and announced, "I don't like you". "Oh, why's that?" I casually asked. "Because you look hard" she responded, somewhere between contempt and wary respect. She gave me a hard time all lesson, but with a likeable twinkle of humour. Toward the end of the lesson I was handing out some worksheets. Unfortunately, due to a recent illness, when I handed her her worksheet my hand was trembling slightly. She was on to it a like a shot. "Why is your hand trembling?" she brazenly asked. I shrugged and smiled. "Must be my illness" I quipped back, waiting for the next piss-take. Instead, she went quiet. "I'm sorry" she said. "Why?" I asked. "I thought you didn't like me." "I don't" she said, "but you're still a human being". Kids. Adults can learn a lot from them sometimes ;)

No I quite like Apathy actually :) Serenity is a feeling, apathy is an indifference to feeling anything at all.

Nice story though :)

Interesting word, 'apathy'. Ambiguous connotations. But I take your point :)

'Which is worse: ignorance or apathy? I don't know and I don't care.' ~ Anon

'I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate - it's apathy. It's not giving a damn.' ~ Leo Buscaglia

'Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all - the apathy of human beings.' ~ Helen Keller

'Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinion at all.' ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

'Indifference, if let alone, will produce obduracy; and obduracy, if let alone, will produce torment.' ~ Henry Melvill

'Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.' ~ George Jean Nathan

'The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity.' ~ George Bernard Shaw, The Devil's Disciple (1897)

'Apathy is the glove in which evil slips its hand.' ~ Prof. McDoogle in National Lampoon's Van Wilder

'The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy. Apathy is when you would do nothing for someone. Love is when you would do anything.' ~ Anon


  1. "The highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion." ~ Richard Feynman (one of my heroes)

    "Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."

    "Physics isn't the most important thing. Love is."

    "Physics is to math what sex is to masturbation."

    "Tell your son to stop trying to fill your head with science - for to fill your heart with love is enough."

    "Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible."

    "You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing."

    "Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn't matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don't think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn't stop you from doing anything at all."

    "I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell."

    "If you thought that science was certain - well, that is just an error on your part."

    "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

    "I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong."

    "We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress."

    "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."

    "I don't know what's the matter with people: they don't learn by understanding, they learn by some other way - by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!"

    "When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles. The other students in the class interrupt me: "We know all that!" "Oh," I say, "you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology." They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes."

    "Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools - guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus - THAT, I CANNOT STAND! An ordinary fool isn't a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible!"

    "What I cannot create, I do not understand."

  2. More wisdom from 'The Great Explainer'...

    "No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literacy or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race."

    "We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on."

    "You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself - it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of the naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher's ideals are."

    "A poet once said, 'The whole universe is in a glass of wine.' We will probably never know in what sense he meant it, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflection in the glass; and our imagination adds atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth's rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe's age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization; all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts - physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on - remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure; drink it and forget it all!"

    "I have a friend who's an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say "look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. Then he says "I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing," and I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is ... I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there's also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."

  3. "Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination - stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one- million-year-old light. A vast pattern - of which I am a part... What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"

    "It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama."

  4. PHILOSOPHY Epistemological Debate Map - Probability, Statistics and Bikinis

  5. "Anxious? Depressed? Try Greek philosophy"
    Jules Evans, The Telegraph, Saturday 29 June 2013

  6. For an example of the Socratic method in action (debating Ayn Rand objectivists) please see 'Atlas Snored… A Case Study on the Ayn Rand Institute' (together with blog comments) at


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  8. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)