Sunday, 4 July 2010
This is yet another in a series of confused and naive Op-Eds on Islam from author Robert Wright. The contents of which are not entirely unexpected (see here religion and in particular here on Islam.) One gets the sense then that everything in Wright’s moral universe is all the opposite of what we think it is: everything is back to front; down is the new up, and black is actually white. Everything would be just fine in the world, Wright seems to think, if we all said to ourselves: “we have met the enemy and he is us
Wright, who wrote this article (The myth of modern Jihad) after reviewing the testimony of one Faisal Shahzad: an naturalised American citizen who failed to explode a bomb in Times square on May 1, 2010. Faisal, speaking in his elocution in Court this week stated that he sees no moral difference between himself and American soldiers or between military personnel and civilian bystanders in a city thousands of miles away from any battle. Rather, in his own words “they are all the same.” Presumably then, every man, woman and child who happens to hold an American or British passport is to his eyes, an open target to any Muslim, anywhere in the world. It is often said that racists and bigots discriminate. However, as Christopher Hitchens points out it is rather a failure to discriminate, to see people as individuals not as the collective swarm of ones feverish imagination. Shahzad, has relegated everyone - all non-Muslims to one monolithic enemy - the infidel, and as such they are without moral concern. Nevermind the fact that the targets of his bomb were of no direct threat to him, his family or any Muslim. Many of them no doubt, actually don’t support the war in Afghanistan, many of them we could expect are quite critical of their own governments. None of this matters however - for they are all Americans and to Shahzad and every fanatic - they are all the same, everyone deserves to be punished by bombs, packed into public places, with the intention of killing and maiming as many infidels as possible.
Shahzad was unrepentant (see the above hyperlink for his full testimony) and explicated his reasons ad nauseum. I find it fascinating, as well as disturbing that Shahzad, an American citizen, who, by his own testimony, was helped by America in his efforts to achieve a university degree, would choose to throw away his life for a conflict thousands of miles away, that except for the fact that he is a Muslim, he has no direct connection with. Despite his articulate explication; I would reserve a cautious scepticism that we may ever know precisely why he did what he did - I will venture some possibilities below; nonetheless, what we can say with almost total certainty, that if Shahzad had not happened to be brought up Muslim in the first place, he would not be spending the rest of his adult life in jail. Imagine, if he were Christian, Buddhist or even Jewish - the probability that he would run off to a foreign country to fight a war or try to blow up a bomb in a city is downright slim. Do American Zen Buddhists blow themselves up in Chinese restaurants in San Francisco over Tibet? No. Do Christians go and fight the Chinese government’s state repression of their co-religionists? No. Why then, is Islam different?
Wright meanwhile, has fallen for Shahzad’s propaganda, hook line and sinker. On the possibility that Shahzad may simply be grandstanding and attempting to appeal to the disagreements and divisions within the West over the War on Terror. It is after all, a basic strategy in conflict - divide and conquer and how does one do that - by sowing doubt, confusion and division within the enemy camp. Wright however, briefly considers this possibility, then sagely rejects it:
Should we really take this testimony seriously? It does, after all, have an air of self-dramatizing grandstanding. Then again, terrorism is a self-dramatizing, grandstanding business, and there’s no reason to think this particular piece of theater isn’t true to Shahzad’s interior monologue.
No reason? How about the fact that every major media outlet would broadcast his view; this furthermore, was his fifteen minutes - his chance to somehow justify the act by which he threw away the rest of his life. Further, did it not cross Wright’s mind that rather than being a noble defender of Muslims against the infidel, Shahzad was simply out to make a name for himself? Or, he simply enjoyed the idea of playing a solider - a mujahid? This idea is not implausible. Muslim scholar Reza Aslan in his book How to Win a Cosmic War thinks that young Muslim men become warriors for Jihad the same way middle class western children join the peace corps, or Amnesty International. Incidentally, Martin Amis suggested as much a number of years ago, that Jihad is the most attractive and seductive idea of this generation - it’s a licence to kill, it’s a mission from God, one that transforms bored young men into giants - both literally and figuratively (as Hamas propaganda grotesquely presents them.) Finally I suspect that Shahzad is telling him, and countless other left-wing writers just waiting to lap up any confirmation of their preferred narrative - whatever the source; even if it is someone who belongs to a irredentist cult of death. (See the Al Qaeda Reader by Raymond Ibrahim, which shows that Al Qaeda are quite savvy in their propaganda against America by citing for instance left-wing books like Rogue State by William Blum.)
Wright then goes on to accuses Daniel Pipes of cognitive dissonance, but perhaps it is himself who needs to look in the mirror. Just consider this fallacious piece of reasoning:
“My point is just that, if you take Shahzad at his word, there’s more cause for hope than if Pipes were right, and Shahzad’s testimony were evidence that Jihadists are bent on world conquest.”
This is a unsound conclusion derived from a dubious premise whose chain of reasoning is wishful thinking. Wright’s hope is that if we accede to everything Muslim extremists demand then everything will be fine - or rather, it hopefully will. The two indubitable facts of the matter however, is that practically, acceding is impossible; secondly, and more importantly, morally we cannot. What would this demand amount to after all? Sharia law in Europe, America and anywhere else large numbers of Muslims happen to reside. Leave Afghanistan back into the hands of Taliban thugs and fanatics, a similar abandonment would have to befall the Iraqi people. Every single, US and allied troop or citizen would have to either vacate the (Dar al Islam) or become a Dhimmi (a second class citizen). Furthermore we would be obliged to forsake Israel to be swallowed up by the seething anger of Palestinians and for Jews to take their “rightful” place - under the lash of every Muslim bigot (as they have done under Islam for much of history - see Bat Ye’ Or’s book The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam and Bernard Lewis’s The Jews of Islam)
Wright, I am sure counts himself as a impeccable liberal and tolerant person. A believer in dialogue, understanding and compromise. These are liberal traits, and they are noble ones, traits which, nonetheless, flower as fruits of education and civilization. While I count myself as a liberal, I am also aware, painfully, but undeniably so, that there are countless who would burn the earth to cinders in order to purge the world of any deviation from orthodoxy. Consider then, the second example of Wright’s naivety:
Now on to the second cause for hope: Pipes’s confusion itself. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether Shahzad was telling the truth, because Pipes certainly thinks he was. Pipes applauds Shahzad’s “forthright statement of purpose,” adding, “However abhorrent, this tirade does have the virtue of truthfulness.
So then why doesn’t it bother Pipes that Shahzad’s depiction of Islamic holy war as defensive counter-attack is the opposite of the depiction Pipes has peddled for years? How can he possibly hail Shahzad’s comments as confirming his world view?”
Wright is arguing that Shahzad is fighting for a defensive reason - and by extension would not have happened if America had not invaded. Again, this only follows if one accepts Shahzad; and why should we? Furthermore, it is simply undeniable that Jihad is inextricably concerned with conquest; that it is both a defensive and offensive notion. Wright disagrees. By way of evidence he provides a hypertext to a chapter in his book (Evolution of God) which amounts to a whitewash of Islamic colonialism and conquest. He cites a single sura, and mentions that it has the virtue of a get out clause, thus supposedly diminishing the external image of unmitigated militancy in Islam. This is what he wrote in his book:
Here again, useful guidance could be found in scripture so long as you looked hard enough. The Koranic verse that comes closest to calling for jihad on a global scale also has a crucial loophole. It begins, “Make war upon such of those to whom the Scriptures have been given as believe not in God, or in the last day, and who forbid not that which God and His Apostle have forbidden,” but then ends, “until they pay tribute out of hand, and they be humbled.” In the end, money would substitute for theological fidelity.
Wright has not looked hard enough or rather has tried hard not to look too hard. His slurring over the concept of Dihmmi -(servitude) - paying the Jizya (a poll tax for unbelievers) as not being all that bad (read on from the link) or done for pragmatic reasons is also suspect. Though to be fair to Wright, what counted most for early Muslims was not theological sophistication or spirituality but success - success in battle and accumulation of booty There are numerous passages in the Koran, and voluminous in the Hadith that call for war, that, can easily be used to support offensive Jihad.. Here is but a flavour:
“Kill those who join other gods with God wherever you may find them” 9.5-6
“Those who believe fight in the cause of god” 4.76
“It is a grave sin for a Muslim to shirk the battle against the unbelievers, those who do will roast in hell.” 2.245
“Allah loves those who fight for His cause in ranks as firm as a mighty edifice.” 61.1
These are all from the Koran itself, which is, remember, the perfect and immutable word of the creator of the universe. This fact, once accepted by any mind, renders any liberal theological gerrymandering incoherent and dishonest. Consider now, as only a flavour, what the Hadith says:
“He who dies without having taken part in a campaign dies in a kind of unbelief “
“A day and a night fighting on the frontier is better than a month of fasting and prayer”
“Jihad is your duty under any ruler, be he godly or wicked”
Consequently as a result of this militancy virtually every major Muslim thinker from Ibn Taimiya to Ibn Khaldun to Sayyid Qutub has echoed and expounded this notion of Jihad. See for example A Bostom’s The Legacy of Jihad for a definitive, scholarly account. Islam, subsequently, has the honour or dishonour of being the first great civilisation (with the possible exception of China) that can claim to be the first truly colonialist and imperial power. Its geographical extension, cultural and religious penetration of less successful religions and cultures dwarfs the imperialism of ancient Rome, 19th century England or 21st century America. (see the chapter Arab Imperialism, Islamic Colonialism in Ibn Warraq’s book Why I’m not a Muslim)
While it is true that nearly all Muslims are not violent there is simply no question of Islam’s doctrinal, philosophical and historical infatuation with violence. Nevertheless, Wright does not appear to directly deny this. He seems to be saying that it is a purely defensive notion - one perhaps distorted and abused. While the Koran seems to indicate that Jihad is a merit for those who fight for the expansion of the faith, it is however incumbent upon all Muslims to defend Islam once it has been attacked. Defensive of Islam however, can be construed so elastically that there is little to stop one who wishes to justify violence.
Given this therefore, and the historical weight of orthodox exegesis of Jihad; the Koran’s evident comfort with violence and apocalyptic imagery; and of course, Muhammad’s warlike example; killing innocent civilians - which are of no direct threat to any Muslim - yes, innocent civilians - let us not euphemise the matter - is, within Islam, simply a non issue.
This last point is important. For Wright, appears to be in the fog of moral bewilderment rendering him incapable of making basic moral distinctions. His tone and reporting of Shahzad, suggests that he sees no significant moral difference between American and British troops; soldiers who wear identifiable uniforms and conduct operations against militants - not women and children; who seek to minimize civilian casualties as best possible, though there are of course mistakes. When mistakes occur however, there are inquests, hearings and apologies. Does any of the above, which can be effortlessly expanded, apply to likes of Bin Laden, Zarqawi (remember him?) Muhammad Atta or Faisal Shahzad? No. These men are not even in the same moral universe.
No doubt, there are good arguments against the war in Afghanistan; the conduct of that war, or the need for its continuation. It is however a disgrace, that Wright legitimises Faisal Shahzad and his toxic ideology. While it is true that these wars have contributed to Muslim anger and resentment it should be pointed out that until 9/11 most Americas were not remotely aware of Bin Laden, Jihad or even the history and tenets of Islam. It is only after 9/11 -after America was attacked (and not for the first time) with the subsequent US and Western (re)-action that any credence can be given to America waging war on Islam. Justifiably, there is plenty of people in the world who could be angry at America and the West. There are plenty of starving and disposed, which we are either indirectly responsible for or are obligated to help. Little of this appears to apply to Islam. It suffered far less consequences of European colonialism compared to Africa or South America. America meanwhile has participated and supported four armed conflicts in the last thirty years in defence of Muslim people; have furthermore contributed millions in oversees aid and has tirelessly attempted to broker peace in Palestine; don’t forget meanwhile, the millions of Muslim immigrants that were and still are being welcomed in Western countries.
Bin Laden, we should remember was a multi-millionaire, he could have lived a life of luxury on the French Riviera, or could have spent his endowment peacefully helping Palestinians with food and medical supplies - or any other charitably endeavours. But no, Bin Laden and countless other men who often possess great intelligence, university educations and with no sign of mental distress or personal malaise - choose to live in caves, fight in wars thousands of miles away or detonate themselves in trains, planes and western nightclubs.
Many - political scientists and sociologists, from journalists to politicians to religious moderates will all attempt to resist the obvious yet “reductionist” conclusion - the common denominator that is a set of beliefs laid down in the 7th century and subsequently fossilised into the minds of millions. Beliefs - about the sanctity of violence - the metaphysics of martyrdom and the glory of the Caliphate. As the chapter in Malise Ruthven’s book Islam in the World Shows (see the chapter Spiritual Renewal pp-261) Islamic history is not only littered with Jihads but with individuals and groups who oppose any form of modernity and attempt to restore, usually with violence and intimidation, Islam to its purity. This is not therefore, a 20th century phenomenon. We are only “aware” of it because we are not only more self-aware of our beliefs but of our neighbours. There is, consequently, always going to be a significant group of men ready to do violence for faith - so long as Islamic ideas are held in good stead. It is therefore a totally circular and morally incompetent argument to mount, as Wright does, that the cause of terrorism is the resistance to it:
But as a practical matter, taking any of these issues off the table weakens the jihadist recruiting pitch. (Different potential recruits, after all, are sensitive to different issues.) And if we could take the Afghanistan war off the table, that would be a big one.For now my main point is that war-on-terror hawks need to confront the downsides, rather than act as if establishing the role of “jihadi intent” or “jihadist ideology” somehow ends the debate. They need to seriously ask whether the policies they favor have, while killing terrorists abroad, created terrorists both abroad and — more disturbingly — at home.
It’s a temptation we all have to fight. Maybe if we fought it as hard as we fight other enemies, we’d have fewer of them. (on our tendency to think even in terms of enemies in the first place.)
This is his last word, and it is about us and our mistakes. Not only is the thinking that there is some (some?) incompatibility between Western liberalism and Islam in principal mistaken but that the fact that we even conceive of thinking about differences between people and between ideas, and that there may be significant moral differences between them - no - this kind of thinking is itself “the problem”.
The sad fact is that there are differences between beliefs and between people. These beliefs, in fact, turn out to be a matter of life and death. Wright, who seems incapable of either believing or conceiving of beliefs and intentions, so radically different from his own, does not appear to be at all worried (then again, why should he, given that he sees no differences.) - subsequently all will end well - just like the end of Communism - which conservatives “demonised” and thumped their chests over. Why did they do this? If we believe Wright - its all down to human cognitive bias and our tendencies to demonise the “other”. If its rooted in evolution, its reasonable to ask, is it not, that emotions like fear, and thoughts of suspicion - did not serve some utility and perhaps, still do?
Just so stories aside, we should remember that there was plenty of reasons to worry about Communism, which Wright in the article slurs over; additionally we may laugh now at the “domino theory” of Communist expansion but that is only from the safety of posterity. Finally, Wright’s analogy between the fall of communism as a solution to Islam is embarrassingly superficial - Wright seems to imply that some day in the future - Muslims will spontaneously wake up and shatter the walls of fundamentalism. A moment of brief historical reflection, however, will reveal that compared to the tensions and conflicts between Christianity, the West and Islam, the less than a century spat between Liberalism and Communism - was nothing but a historical footnote. What is desperately needed here is some clear thinking as opposed to wishful thinking if we to understand and resolve the problem with Islam. Wright however, sadly displays much of the latter without showing a correspondent ability for the former.
Saturday, 3 July 2010
Therein lies the clue. Philosophy, I would assert is an activity, an attitude and a method of inquiry. It inquires into the thinking of thinking. So, where science studies objects (animals, chemicals, particles for instance) and seeks to understand how they work or what they do, Philosophers meanwhile think about how scientists think about such objects of inquiry and the assumptions implicit therein and the theories which follow from such inquiry. Subsequently philosophers attempt to determine the validity and soundness of such inquiries. To put it succinctly, philosophy is the questioning of assumptions - the assumptions that others -scientists, historians and theologians function by. Historically, or at least since Descartes, the goal of philosophy seemed to strive for indubitable foundations for the sciences and all knowledge. A perhaps more modern aim is to provide a coherent explanation and justification of our thinking and beliefs. They may suggest therefore, that philosophers are merely engaged in micro trivia, who simply fret about little problems that are of little concern to anyone. This of course overstates the issue -why therefore has philosophy been one of the oldest of intellectual subjects - if not the oldest. One that still grips all minds on some level and engages serious thinkers aswell.
Subsequently, others may take a more heroic view, arguing that while in many ways they do rely on other disciplines for input, philosophy does offer substantive truths, and that they do have a particular subject - truth or the overall nature of reality. Traditionally, philosophers were seen with asking three questions:
1. What is true?
2. What is good?
3. What is beauty?
The third question seems somewhat effete now, we could replace it with:
3. How do we know what is true and good?
This question (3) has more of an epistemological flavour to it. While the first two questions should be seeded to other subjects, philosophers should still rightly ask how do they know that, what justifies that. This sounds negative, an attitude that many associate with modern analytic philosophy -that its teaches people “only” to be “bullshit detectors”. Now, when we ask how do they know such and such or is such and such justified - what we are asking for is a rationally coherent answer. This is believe is the answer: philosophy seeks to know truth and the good by rational means, means that any rational or objective person would assent to.
This suggest two things: firstly, that philosophers do have a subject - rationality and applying rationality to other disciplines; secondly this would suggest that the fruits of philosophic investigation can affect the epistemic practice and ontological status of other subjects. While it is true, that philosophy does not provide us with ground level facts the way other subjects do, it nonetheless can potentially bracket them, systematise and harmonise them into a rational coherent order or indeed otherwise. Philosophy can draw a line through or place question marks beside the ontological claims of science, history and religion. Many thinkers of these subject at times have tended to react negatively at this conclusion, their superficial dismissal of the subject will not do: to dismiss philosophy by say scientific positivism or religious fideism is itself to make covert philosophic claims and are inherently self-defeating. While this is true, it does not of course extend to the specific metaphysical doctrines of say realism or idealism.
What does it all mean? This could be the perennial motto of philosophy. To take two examples one from the philosophy of science the second from the philosophy of religion. Much debate in the philosophy of science, focuses on how we should understand and interpret the scientific endeavour. On what terrain this dispute settles on will affect how we bracket the facts, theories and methods that comprise the sciences. An instrumentalist view, sees science as good for making predictions about things in the world, that it is an indispensable incubator of technology. Posits such as electrons, quarks or neutrinos are simply useful fictions to explain the phenomena. A cousin to this would be to take a constructivist view: the theories we have are empirically adequate, objectively arrived at but only supposing certain background criteria and assumptions which may have more to do with our cognitive capacitates endowed by evolution than with any “real” correspondence with reality. Another view, a kind of realism may state that our theories are indeed corrigible and contingent, but they are the best theories, that purport to describe real phenomena in the world. Furthermore, to state that our scientific theories are useful fictions or construction needs to be seen as a first order claim, and as such may not be a accurate account of the endeavour - which may in fact be incoherent. However we ought to think about this, it does not seem likely that we could science itself to answer such questions (though of course they play a role). The overall structure and coherent account of the endeavour and of the ontological status and epistemic practice of science will have to come from philosophers.
The second example is to consider a long running dispute in philosophy of religion. In essence it boils down to this: does the fact of evolution disprove or undermine a belief in god. Many religious people claim yes, as do many atheists. Some state no, and quite a few atheist say no either. A philosopher would explore the issue by examining the beliefs of the different parties, exploring the implications of these beliefs and highlighting the conflicts and contradictions of these beliefs when conjoined. However, there are different beliefs (some of which may be more central or important than others) that can be modified or rejected, all resulting in different conclusions - or different epistemic maps of the ontological terrain. This however, is not relativism, for these conclusions themselves are going to have be scrutinised and many may hold unwelcome implications and tensions that may force revision or abandonment. A Christian may accept evolution but only at the cost of making difficult revisions to their religious beliefs. Likewise a Christian may reject evolution, and a lot of science and rational thinking to boot, or may simply reject evolution but a coherent explanation for doing so but one that is so convoluted and implausible that signals to others an embarrassment. In such situations like this one a philosopher is like an economist telling us what capital we have, what is needed for basic running of our business. He then lays out the options for cutting (what beliefs demand revision or abandonment)and the attendant consequences that follow such "cutting and harmonizing".
So, as these examples show philosophy can affect, first order disciplines and beliefs but it does so at much higher level. It does so mainly in the application of rational thought. So I would contend that philosophy is largely a matter of method, technique and application of concepts and rules. In true philosophic spirit however, these tools and methods themselves are disputed and critiqued by more basic and fundamental concepts. This endeavour is called the philosophy of philosophy.
Philosophy to summarise does thus:
1. To criticize: ideas, theories and practices, conceptual confusions and logical mistakes. In particular there is a focus on three areas: logical consistency, evidential superiority and practical efficacy.
2. To clarify: redefine questions, pose new ones, reject old ones. Draw distinctions, suggest meaning and significance.
3. Coherence: to provide systematic coherence and explanation. To achieve consistency, coherence and rational order.
4. Collaborative To learn from and engage with scientists, historians, psychologists and sociologists and all other intellectuals.
“ One might, in fact, define philosophy as the rational systematization of our thoughts, on basic issues - of the “basic principles” of our understanding of the world and our place in it. We become involved in philosophy in our endeavour to make systemic sense of the extra philosophical “fact” - when we try to answer those big question by systematizing what we think we know about the world, pushing our “knowledge” to its ultimate conclusions and combining items usually kept in convenient separation. Philosophy polices our thought, as it were, as the agent for maintaining law and order in our cognitive endeavours.” - Nicholas Rescher
Friday, 2 July 2010
The alternative title of this post was going to be what have your changed your mind about and why? However, within the last year I would have to confess that I have not changed by mind in any great or profound way. This does mean that there has been no enlargement or evolution of what I think or why I think it. No. In fact, it has been a great year. Before going to university, I spent a good deal of time reading and thinking, it was slight in comparison however to what was to come. This is not to say that I found what I was studying large or taxing - most of the time I was off doing my own thing and had great fun doing so.
I think the correct assessment of this year is what could be called the Socratic definition of intelligence: that the mark of an educated man is to know the extent of his own ignorance, to know that is: less and less about more and more. Taking in the new five story library at Queens, with its thousands of books on philosophy, history and politics, one simultaneously feels unnerved at how little reading and understanding one possesses - while wishing to read to correct this limitation with all the hours that god sends. An example I fondly remember, was when I pulled Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word from the shelf. I sat down intending only to scan the book. However, so impressed and inspired by Nagel’s thought and elegance in writing that I sat in the chair for the next three hours and finished the book, even re-reading sections of it again to fully capture the message.
The lucky irony, is while this year I fully and deeply fell for the questions and problems of philosophy, it was not at first to be so. The degree that I had originally chosen to do was International Studies - similar to Politics (Political Science) with only a more internationalist flavour. Last summer however, after reading and re-reading Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Durant’s Story of Philosophy, the subject was something of an itch that could not be scratched. The problem was further compounded by reading Julian Baggini’s introductory aids to the subject (which I thoroughly recommend) - The Philosophers Toolkit and The Ethics Toolkit. These books, while designed to explain the conceptual tools, methods and arguments a philosopher uses, and as such might be considered dry and uninteresting - to me, on the contrary - it is rather the quest for precision, clarity and exactness that this book purports to help instil in the beginner that makes me value philosophy so.
Subsequently then, a week before term began I switched to a joint honours between politics and philosophy. By Christmas, my desire to pursue philosophy near full time was almost complete. By the years end I had decided to change my degree: major in philosophy and a minor in politics. The minor subjects of politics can be made up by studying political theory, so I still remain within the bounds of philosophy generally. Thus, I was lucky to have changed when I did, for it made all the difference between fully engaging in what I was doing instead of slowly losing the will to live. Indeed, as luck would have it, I more or less did (in subject material terms) a major/minor instead of a joint this year anyway. I have only had to do two full blown political science courses (instead of say three). One subject included in the politics course - Perspectives on Politics was political philosophy. This module, I enjoyed the most. It was charismatically taught by the lecturer - which always helps; the module was put together in a coherent and systematic fashion, unlike unfortunately, some others.
As you would expect the module introduced the key disputes within the subject. However, one in particular gripped me. It was the dispute namely between what can be called communitarian and liberal theories of justice. Though in fact, this does not really do justice (as it were) to the issue, as it is a debate that crosses over several interdisciplinary lines, never mind several distinct and overlapping areas in moral and political philosophy - not to mention the metaphysics of identity.
Initially, my first reaction to communitarian thought was one of indifference and dislike. I saw it as an apologists work for authoritarianism and obscurantism. However, I knew that this attitude was unjustified without careful consideration of the argument. So I pressed ahead and read twice Alistair Macintyre’s After Justice. Though I disagree much with what he thinks, I came to believe that something had been missed from debates within moral philosophy about the role of character, virtue and dispositions. Though I should stress, that this interest was stimulated by moral psychologists as much as by philosophers. The modern Liberal view - encapsulated by John Rawls is not necessarily opposed to communitarian thought in fact there are many points of agreement. The real disagreement is between what could be considered the extremes of libertarian thinking both the left and the right. Much of the year I spent thinking about a rapprochement between the two positions.
While I think that Rawls basic paradigm of distributive justice is sound, it builds a foundation upon which many questions remain, which could be asked and answered by number of different systems of thought - some of which might not be considered liberal. There is however some evidence to suggest that in terms of wellbeing and human flourishing - the communitarians may be right. This however needs to be cashed out in ways that avoid the standard criticisms that could dog it - its potential illiberalness, its insularity and obfuscation. I hope to develop some of my views on this over the summer in order to deliver a talk next year, as I happened to become vice president of Queens Philosophy Society. So I should say a few words about that.
The society intends to do a number of things, not least interviews with the staff modelled on the interviews that Bryan Magee undertook with several key contemporary philosophers concerning the greats. We also plan to do a medieval style dispute, which I think will be enormous fun, along with conferences and other things. The good thing about this is that it allows for the opportunity to meet people and argue and develop and refine ones views - something which is a necessary factor to this subject.
A lot of philosophy in my first semester was taken up by continental thought. It is this style of philosophy next to the Greeks that people probably most associate (negatively) philosophy with. This style of thought was well described by one lecturer (quoting Ricœur) that it was the “philosophy of suspicion”. We looked at Nietzsche and the Existentialists, a little Hegel and some Marx - thankfully no Freud (he was cancelled).
While I have to admit that I expected to intensely dislike this, it was not all bad, Nietzsche in particular, while I do not agree with him, he is worthy of study and refutation - he is one of those philosophers who will always be a challenge. As for the rest, some of what thinkers like Nietzsche, Sartre and Foucault thought - are, surprising interesting, I think however that it has been said better, earlier and with less pretence and obfuscation.
The subject of ethics has only really be considered in the last few months. Namely in the way of practical ethics (the subject and the book by Peter Singer). Much of this, I have to confess is a straightforward refutation of (which Singer himself admits) religious dogma that had been preserved into a secular context by the help of Kant and some other unthinking human prejudices. Much of my interest in ethics either stems from thinking about political problems or engaging with the information flowing from the mind and life sciences, much of contemporary philosophical ethics in comparison seems vapid, though I suspect this will change.
A far greater interest and itch that I developed was over epistemology. I have always been interested in procedures, methods and what counts as evidence. So, it was to be expected that I would find the subject interesting. Again ironically, or perhaps because of this I have tried to explore epistemology in ways that are socially relevant. My term for this - everyday epistemology is concerned with rational rules of belief acceptance. How to assess, judge, accept or reject sources and the reliable rules and methods which govern this, all in the field of religion, politics and ethics. Three subjects that generate great conflict and division. Much of which I believe, as Russell said - require clarity and coolness and clear thinking.
Early on I seemed to gravitate away from the concerns of traditional epistemology which perhaps have been characterised nearly all epistemologists since Descartes. I did not find the Cartesian project interesting, nor much of the work of Ayer or Russell. Popper has some very interesting things to say but is more engaged with philosophy of science (a topic I have tried to steer clear from this year) but, I became almost by accident very much interested in the ideas of one Nicholas Rescher. A prolific American philosopher (over nearly a hundred books) a truly systematic thinker (pragmatic idealism) and someone who has seems to have thought about everything and in in the process has built up a truly comprehensive system of rational inquiry and thought.
The ideas of Quine and one of his students (Penelope Maddy Second Philosophy) were and still are being absorbed and thought about. This, together with Rescher is an epistemology that is rational and objective; empiricist and practical; confident and realist while still fallible - willing to role up the sleeves as it were and get down to work. It is this truly pragmatic character - an epistemology friendly to science and interested in real problems -not the airy, abstract and effete worries of the problems of scepticism that trouble so many. Though, one must ask - how much of this is a temperamental thing rather than philosophic?
Then, finally, we come to religion. That subject that has engaged me these last three years, and whose study and consideration lead me to university in the first place. Well on one level, it was its swan song -its philosophic one anyway. Well, what do you expect when you read David Hume?
Hume who the spoof philosophical lexicon has as meaning: “To commit to the flames, bury, or otherwise destroy a philosophical position, as in "That theory was humed in the 1920s."
Hume the great infidel has probably mounted the most severest assault on the intellectual foundations of religion. While I was quite familiar (from other writers) about his arguments against design and miracles, I found when reading him directly that many ideas I had about the subjects (criticising the design argument) that I thought original - no chance - Hume had it down first. However, what was most striking this year surprising was his argument from evil. This argument, which I have long considered a theological problem and thus not especially interesting, was in the hands of Hume to prove devastating to the theistic project.
The further irony, a happy one, was that I had the good fortune to have as tutor not only a deeply religious observer but a deeply serious philosopher. A fine example that you should never judge by appearances. My first impression - a lazy metaller PHD student - turned out to be something quite different. Indefatigable in argument, prodigious in output, almost preternaturally self-assured and seems to have read and considered everything from early Christian history to German philosophy (in German) as comfortable talking about Russell’s Principia Mathmatica to Chomsky’s assault on the behaviourist language thesis, to questions about the idea that non-human animals do not have natural languages. The long hours of dispute and conversation provided ample proof of Hitchens’ notion that one of the conditions of light is heat - that argument and disagreement are necessarily for progress and insight. But I have an insight of my own, in order to learn, you should learn not only learn from people you disagree with but spend as much time as possible with them. The great thing about having a tutor like that is that your own ignorance and inconsistency is quickly exposed. You quickly learn two vital things - know what you going to say and why before you say it; secondly, admit to owning up to things you know nothing about.
As of now, I am taking a break from philosophy (kind of) looking at Islamic history, the brain, and philosophy of history as well as history in general. I will have a few months of reading, and summer indulgences before starting my second year, where I hope to redouble my efforts in politics and philosophy. While acknowledging that people have their own project and passions many of which are more worthy of respect than mine - I can agree with Aristotle that the good life (for me) is the philosophic life, the life of reflection and inquiry.