P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 61
29th June 2003
I. 'Discourse on Malady' a fiction by Jurgen Lawrenz
II. 'Contracts, Coercion, and Condo Boards: A Reply to Stuart Burns'
by Anthony Flood
III. 'Speak Up - Reflections on the Pathways Conference' by Mike Ward
I. 'DISCOURSE ON MALADY' A FICTION BY JURGEN LAWRENZ
Discourse on Malady
Attributed to Rene Descartes
Edited by Jurgen Lawrenz
Preparing to enter the stage of
learning, I come forward wearing
the mask of a simple soldier.
(From the 'Register' [DescartesÕ
Some few years ago, a study of Descartes by Bernard Williams bore the
magnificent title 'The Project of Pure Research'. A good case can be made out
that the noble sentiment reflected in this title also reflects the historical
truth; it is after all, a claim put forth by Descartes himself. One should
every so often, he wrote, descend to bedrock and examine the very idea of a
human capacity for knowledge, its preconditions, and the dangers lying in wait
for anyone who might enter upon such a novitiate.
Taking Descartes' self-analysis at face value does not seem to require
justification. What could be nobler than such a sentiment, such a selfless
service rendered to philosophy, especially at a juncture in its career when the
sheer quantity of bric-a-brac brought life-threatening obesity in its wake and
urged a radical slimming cure? History vindicated the 'project of pure
research', indeed triumphantly so. Descartes belongs among the major saints in
its hall of fame.
The setting could not have been more propitious. A brilliant mathematical
genius, Descartes cracked at the age of 19 a problem left unsolved by Pappus
1700 years before and proceeded in short order to lay the foundations of
analytical geometry and reductive-eliminative physics, which comprise jointly
the power base of modern science. At the same time, his metaphysical papers
revamped a whole branch of philosophy, so there is indubitable truth in Eric
Bell's observation that "it is given to but few men to renovate a whole
department of thought. Descartes was one of these few". And he renovated two,
The 'Discourse on Method' (hereafter: MET) with its scientific appendages,
which inaugurated this revolution, is too famous to require any dilation on my
part. The 'Discourse on Malady,' however, is evidently an early and by all
appearances hasty sketch of what was destined to become the MET, as may readily
be confirmed by noting the transfer of verbatim phrases and whole sentences.
What the MET lacks in its highly polished and manicured exposition, however, is
the very immediacy of experience which distinguishes this draft. The 18 years
separating this document from its published sibling were clearly devoted to
gaining an objective distance and allowing all-healing time to close
psychological wounds, thus enabling the writer to paint a fine glaze of
rational thinking and aristocratic reserve over it.
The MS was discovered as long ago as 1898 under a wooden staircase of a small
Black Forest homestead leading from the kitchen to the chicken pen. The
staircase broke as the woman stepped on it. In the course of digging out its
lower part, a carpenter found what seemed like a pouch or wallet enclosing some
(mostly rotted through) papers. Noting the foreign language, and worried that it
might have some connection to an espionage ring then known to be active in the
region, he reported it to the police and from there the papers eventually came
into the hands of the curator of rare and ancient manuscripts of the Swabian
State Library. It was soon identified as written in Descartes' own hand,
confirmed by the letters "[o]itevin" running into the last page from the
torn-off margin. The piece was not, however, ever published owing to its
corrupt state. The present effort is the first to make that attempt.
As much as could be reconstructed from the fragment is herewith offered to the
reader. Ellipses indicate breaks in the author's text.
= I =
*Superstition is of all things in the world so evenly distributed, and everyone
so abundantly endowed with it, that scarce one of even the most hard-to-please
men feels bereft of their share and desires more of it. And it seems to me
unlikely that we should be mistaken in trusting our powers of judgement and
discernment of the true from the false in respect of it; for what is properly
called good sense or reason is by nature equal among all men. And so the
disparities in our opinions arise not from a want of largesse of mind, but from
the habit of scattering our attention in too many directions at once, rather
than concentrating upon the objects of our thoughts as they occur to us.
Reason, which makes us men and separates us from brutes, I believe to be
completely vested in every man; yet when I gaze through the eyes of philosophy
upon the doings and motives of men, and especially the deeds and reasons
displayed in the name of those supe[rstitions] ..., many seem so devoid of
sense to me, and vain and useless, that I have come to doubt the very
foundations of truth in all that I had been taught. And so at length I resolved
little by little to discard those many errors which obscure the natural light of
reason ... [and resolved?] no longer to be duped by the promises of alchemists,
the predictions of astrologers, the impostures of magicians and the assurances
of priests that flames cleanse the souls of witches. And I resolved to study my
own nature as well, and to employ all the resources of my mind with a view to
choosing a path which henceforth I might fo[llow] ...
= II =
I was in Germany at the time [ed: November 1619] and on my way from the
coronation of the Emperor to my army contingent, when a severe winter stopped
me in my tracks and obliged me to seek quarter in a little Black Forest village
where, with no society to distract me and cooped up in a small, stove-heated
room I had no other occupation than to follow the wanderings of my thoughts.
Crouched by the side of the stove, I fell at length into a reverie marked by
three long periods in which nightmarish phantoms wracked my peace. A fire
gripped my brain and I fell into a state of excited hallucination, as phantoms
danced attendance on a stranger of horrid mien, who approached me bearing a
melon-sized yellow ball in his hands; the terror of his approach turning my
blood to ice, while yet rivers of sweat poured down my temples and my neck and
my knees scarce sustained the crouch. And in my fear I felt as though the
stranger, without so much as a touch, squeezed me like a sponge and I seemed to
be standing barefoot in a lake of mud bubbling with hell's gurgles. The melon
bore the title LE MONDE in clear and distinct characters; and as the stranger
held it up I saw depicted in it, as in a crystal balloon, my own image: here
bent over a seething cauldron scooping droplets of gold from a steamy,
sulphurous bath; elsewhere attired in a green and purple robe swinging a
charger and chanting a strange and barbaric babylonian abracadabra in a mock
ceremonial; and in yet another place lighting a stack of hay and timber
gathered in a circle around a pole to which two maidens had been strapped,
whose shrieks and wails as the flames gorged themselves on their flesh froze my
veins and stopped my heart, so that I broke into a senseless, inane, panicky
laughter, whose peal continued to ring in my ears as the vision faded and I
awoke, panting and choking and reviling the response of my body to the
imaginings of my mind.
Falling asleep from exhaustion, a second dream came to me, even more fearsome
than the first, where the stranger, dressed in cap with horns and wearing just
one shoe shaped like a coven hoof, while his chest was tattooed with the
blood-red inscription MALO SPIRITU in clear and distinctly shaped letters,
approached me as if emerging from a gauze-like curtain of fog. But he drew it
aside, and behind was revealed the universe entire, the stars and the planets,
the sun and the moon; and on earth the flora and fauna in their habitats; and
in the cities the people, the traffic, the commerce, the running hither and
thither, buying and bartering, haranguing and hectoring. But soon dusk fell,
and now I saw men studiously bent over volumes of books, all titled "False
Knowledge" and "False Beliefs", while over the chimneys of their houses witches
rode on broomsticks towards the lunar sickle, and ghosts clad in pale shrouds
haunted the graves of their cemeteries; and elsewhere, in many a secret
enclave, men and women were gathered in nakedness to worship before monstrous
effigies of Lust and Dissolution. At this the demon snapped his fingers and
said, "What is?" And at once the lights of the cosmos, the candles of the men,
became extinguished and I stood shivering and alone in the vastness of this
emptiness. The demon, too, had vanished; though I still heard his whispered
"What is?" echoing from I know not how many millions of corners in a staccato
of sibilant hisses. -- Then silence. A mute, soundless, extinguished world.
Alone. I thought I heard a voice, but as I focused on it, I realised the vain
endeavour, for my ears and eyes and limbs had vanished. Nothing was left of me
but my thoughts. What is? the demon had asked. Somewhere inside me a scream of
terror arose and engulfed me, but I heard not a sound. And still the scream
endured, filling the whole vastness of this cosmic cathedral with my pain, yet
I heard not a sound.
How many aeons did I bear this mute solitude? I know not; but my consciousness
did return to me eventually, and throughout this gradual reluminescence a
single thought kept fizzing in my mind like a spinning top, "cogito", "sum".
Again and again, the mere shadow of a shadow, until at last my limbs returned
from their deadness and the taste of blood on my lips and a sharp, piercing
pain in my left side assured me that this ordeal had no extinguished my life.
How could I have known? How could I be sure, when it had been so easy for the
evil demon to make me doubt that anything exists? Because, as my awakening
spirits made known to me, the demon had not destroyed my soul, and while my
soul remained 'athinking', I continued to exist.
At this, I relapsed into a benevolent reverie in which I reflected on this
solitary truth retrieved from the clutches of the evil demon. I think, I exist.
I will put this brick into the first corner, as my foundation stone. And I saw
another vision, in which an elderly man held down a small sheaf of books on a
table, one with "True Knowledge" emblazoned on the title page, another, a
collection of poems, opened on Ausonius' verse "What road in Life shall I
follow?" And I realised that I must devote my life to cultivating reason and to
revealing to mankind the truth with invincible proofs. And at once I resolved
upon a pilgrimage to Loreto, to offer thanks at the shrine of the Virgin for
thus delivering me from the evils and falsehoods in which hitherto I had found
[...] And I determined like a man lost in a dark forest to proceed slowly and
with the utmost circumspection, and not to idle in any one spot for long, to
avoid being trapped in the snares of error where the agency of my mind might be
powerless to guide me in my perplexities. And so I became convinced that I could
do no better than to rid myself, forthwith and at least this one time in my
life, of all the teachings I had hitherto accepted without question and to
reform my own thoughts on this foundation belonging to me alone. I am only
afraid that this reconstruction will prove too bold an enterprise for others,
for the mere resolution to discard one's beliefs is not an example easily
followed ... This is why I thought I must look for some method or rules of the
mind, so that I should be enabled to discipline myself through the adoption of
a few precepts; and I considered that four should suffice me provided that I
remained fixed in my resolve never once to depart from them.
[Here follow, word for word, the four rules of the MET; but thereafter the text
peters out in incomprehensibility and picks up again 2 pages further on,
presumably still as part of Ch. II.]
1. I cannot fathom what kind of God the world believes in: that kind of God
seems to me a vicious and evil spirit, a phantom and fata morgana of all the
evils festering in men's souls. Hence I must fashion my own God: a God who does
not lie, who honours faith and truth. My God receives my complete trust and
faith and will never fail me.
2. In the world created by my God, demons cannot exist, because my God gives me
clear and distinct perceptions, and no demons occur therein.
3. In the world created by my God, no witches need to be burned, because
witches, astrology, alchemy and all the other fancies of diseased minds are
impossible, simple errors of knowledge.
4. In the world of my God, the spirit belongs to Him and the flesh is mine, a
machine to aid me in my need to ambulate. My body and all bodies of men and
animals alike are to be mere machines, mere mechanisms, over which no spirit or
demon can have power except the soul which controls it.
5. In the world created by my God, all evolution proceeds by orderly
progression from the simple to the complex and from the small to the large.
Neither ghosts nor demons exist, because these cannot be decomposed into their
6. There is no meliorating false knowledge, for superstition stripped of its
vestments today simply returns in another garb tomorrow. It must be desiccated
of its substance; it must be PROVED to be an empty husk without possibility of
existence in my God's universe.
7. In my God's world, the heathenish and pernicious doctrines of Aristotle are
replaced by a true metaphysics. [...] Sorbonne [...]. Finis.
1. After 10 years of studious peregrinations, a series of parhelia observed in
1629 set Descartes aflame with the desire to at last deliver to the world the
fruits of his long thinking. Le Monde* was ready for the printer by 1633, when
the ban on Galileo was pronounced; and Descartes may well have reflected on
Aristotle's words, "I do not wish the Athenians to sin against philosophy a
second time." His semi-public excuses are lame subterfuges; in reality he
wanted to burn his MS, for his God had meanwhile been created and one look
with a cool objective eye at such passages as 11:37-8 or 11:47 would have
convinced him that his effrontery in dictating to the almighty Lord the 'rules'
under which He was allowed to create the world exceeded the worst that Galileo
had dared to print.
2. In 1644 Descartes submitted his 'Principles of Philosophy' to the Sorbonne.
He did so in the firm expectation that any sane reader would be compelled to
spontaneously accept the truth of his physics in any direct confrontation with
Aristotle and that the university would forthwith consign the Stagyrite to the
dust bin. Allow me the comment that this was not megalomania, but a conviction
with which Descartes had lived for 25 years, and that he must have regarded his
intervening publications as a gentle easing of the world into his new concept of
God and the world, and that the world was now ready to act without delay: to
destroy, once and for all, root and branch, the witch universe in which he
had grown up.
(c) Jurgen Lawrenz 2003
II. 'CONTRACTS, COERCION, AND CONDO BOARDS: A REPLY TO STUART BURNS' BY ANTHONY
I thank Stuart Burns for his critical essay and Geoffrey Klempner for
publishing this reply.
A reminder of context is in order. The question of the moral justifiability of
"redistributing" resources looms on the horizon of any exploration of the
ethical dimension of offering the redistributionist benefit. Therefore, even if
Professor Wolff did not intend to justify redistributionism in the original
paper on which Dr. Klempner invited me to comment, failure of justification
leaves the exploration suspended midair. Thinking that was a point worth
making, I accepted rather than declined the invitation to comment. Now to Mr.
Mr. Burns finds in Professor Wolff's argument a fallacious shift from the
observation of fact, "A has fewer resources than B," to the normative claim, "A
is disadvantaged with respect to B." From there it is no great leap to "A
ought not to be disadvantaged" and perhaps "A ought to have no fewer resources
than does B." Exposing that fallacy, however, and the egalitarianism that
Professor Wolff presupposes are not central to my case against redistribution.
My point has been that if B is not responsible for A's being disadvantaged,
then C, D, E, ... n (severally, or calling themselves "society") have no
warrant for picking B's pocket to improve A's condition.
Mr. Burns seems to be of two minds about "implied social contract." He suggests
it, retracts it, and then gingerly defends it by speculating about what
governmental employees think. That is, if they think they have an obligation to
provide the services for which taxes are collected, Mr. Burns's argument seems
to be, a contract of some sort must be in force, perhaps social, perhaps
implicit. "I would love to see an argument," he writes, "that explains why the
many social obligations that we all readily accept do not demonstrate the
existence of an implied contract." The short answer is that "ready acceptance"
is not a reliable guide to what obligations we do, or do not, have. Now for the
Once we stipulate what we mean by a word, we may not equivocate. If we use the
word "contract" to refer to arrangements whereby we voluntarily deploy our
resources or put our property at risk in the expectation of mutual gain, then
we may not also use that word to refer to arrangements wherein we do not do
Some contracts may be no more than promises and signaled by a simple handshake.
Not every human relationship, however, implies a contract. Nor is every set of
mutual expectations. For example, a gentleman named Vinny may drop by my store
on Tuesdays expecting to collect payment for "protection services." Our
relationship, however, is neither social nor contractual, but anti-social and
criminal. Freedom from Vinny's violence does not cost him anything to
"provide," so I owe him nothing in exchange for refraining from threatening me.
By intending to charge me for what is mine by right he repudiates the moral
point of view.
We ought not, then, stretch the word "contract" to cover both my financial
relationship to Vinny and my financial relationship to, say, my bodyguard.
Philosophers seek clarity in their efforts to understand. They undermine that
goal when they equivocate, that is, use one word to refer to two radically
different things, for example, a moral principle and its violation.
In "Redistributionism, Continued," I distinguished between moral ownership
and mere physical possession. Along the same lines I distinguish between
morally enforceable coercion and the initiation of force. When I am forced to
fulfill an obligation on which I am reneging, I may feel just as I would were
someone to initiate force against me. The sources of those similar feelings,
however, are categorically different, morally speaking. The failure to see the
difference signals the absence of the moral point of view.
Mr. Burns is inclined, albeit reluctantly, to conclude that society requires
that some individuals impose their decisions on others, much as Vinny imposes
his on me. Such is the perennial anti-libertarian suspicion, and I commend Mr.
Burns for airing it candidly. Nourishing it, however, is the presupposition
that society is an agent apart from its constituent members, one that faces
moral choices that they do not.
So when Mr. Burns refers causally to "collective decision-making," I am not
sure what the word "collective" is doing. His decision, mine, and that of
others to carry on this dialogue, for example, do not fuse into a "collective
decision." Similarly, therefore, there cannot be any "collective decision to be
charitable" (on which more presently).
To impose a decision by initiating force is to impose a cost. It is forcibly to
divert scarce resources into paths that the owner does not prefer, thereby
retarding or altogether frustrating the achievement of his goals. My moral
intuitions suggest that the would-be imposer is obliged to justify his
prospective imposition; the prospective patients of this operation do not have
to demonstrate their right to control physically what they own morally. I
presume the reader has similar intuitions. That presumption may be mistaken.
Mr. Burns claims to "agree with Mr. [Hubertus] Fremerey's observations that Mr.
Flood misunderstands the difference between 'contractual' and 'social'
relations." Perhaps Mr. Burns can tell me what Mr. Fremerey means. I grant that
I may be simply wrong when I regard contractual relations as a species of social
relations, but surely that qualifies as some sort of understanding. How is it a
People do have moral obligations before they enter into contracts. Each party
expects that the other will abide by the contract's terms and, each hopes, not
just because of their fear of penalties. You and I cannot enter into an
arrangement to exchange titles unless each of us understands that neither may
take by force or stealth what the other one has, even if he can. Generally,
members of society share an understanding of their moral relationship to each
other as requisite to their respective hopes of achieving a good life. That
understanding may be unarticulated or implied. But mere understanding does not
a contract make.
To satisfy positive, contractually based obligations must cost something. It
costs nothing, however, to fulfill negative moral obligations. Recall my
example of Vinny the extortionist. He wants to charge me for what is naturally
mine and costs him nothing to honor. Formal contracts are impossible without
"refraint," the individual's moral commitment to refrain from violating
rights. Being prior to contract, refraint is not a contract, not even an
"implicit" or "social" one.
I grant the possibility that I am wrong when I say that redistribution is
equivalent to robbery. In doing so, however, I am hardly contradicting my other
statement, with which Mr. Burns expressed full agreement, namely, "forcible
expropriation is justifiable only to restore property to its rightful owners,
not to deprive them of it." To equate robbery with redistribution does not
prevent me from distinguishing robbery from restitution.
Paying Common Charges: A Taxing Experience?
(Or, Not-So-Sweet Charity?)
Before discussing Mr. Burns's imaginary condominium board (with its charitable
majority), let us remind ourselves that Professor Wolff was not seeking the
protocols of offering charity. That would have exposed him to the rejoinder,
which I would have been all too pleased to make, that charity not only should
be voluntary, but can only be so. The transfer of resources, insofar as it is
forced, prevents us from reasonably counting this act as one of charity toward
its beneficiary, either on the part of the expropriated resource owner or the
redistributor. Redistributionists interpret redistributed benefits as
entitlements. In the normal meaning of words, no one is entitled to another's
charity, and no one can give in charity to another that to which he is entitled.
As someone who has sat on a condo board since 1985, I find Mr. Burns's scenario
lacking in real reference. I do not find in the collection of common charges a
form of "redistribution" from which we may extrapolate a justification of State
Charitable expenditures by organizations such as condo boards require a
compelling business rationale. Board members are fiduciaries, and as such they
must exercise extreme caution when proposing to use their principals' money for
gift-giving. Having to draw up and implement budgets, board members know how
quickly the uncertainty of future increases in costs (e.g., salaries, fuel,
water, etc.) throws charitable sentiments into cold perspective. They therefore
do not for very long entertain purely charitable gestures, such as the handicap
access ramp of Mr. Burns's example.
Condo unit owners freely obligate themselves to pay common charges. They have
not been coerced into agreeing to pay them, even if they may need to be coerced
into abiding by that agreement. Coercion becomes a justifiable possibility,
however, only if a unit owner reneges on that freely assumed commitment.
Tickets for sporting events often contain printed statements to the effect that
the event's sponsor may electronically broadcast the patron's image without
compensating him. Such is the "package deal" that comes with one's ticket. No
patron may legitimately claim later that the broadcaster "invaded his privacy."
Similarly, there is no violation of fiduciary trust if the majority of board
members vote in favor of a charitable venture. Caveat emptor. Read the fine
Mr. Burns's focus on "a signed legal document" or "a piece of paper" is
therefore misplaced. That is not what distinguishes a board of fiduciaries that
arises through market transactions from a State that recognizes (in principle)
no limitation on its prerogative to override such transactions. When people
sign and file their tax returns "voluntarily" they contribute to the fiction
that the government's has a "signed contract" to cloak its depredations. The
relevant test of contract is whether an interpersonal relationship is formed
peacefully, not whether it is memorialized on paper.
The State: Love It or Leave It?
Mr. Burns finds it "easy to imagine a challenged State simply mandating that
every resident either sign an explicit legal contract or leave the
jurisdiction." When it comes to the right to demand or mandate anything,
however, imagination is not germane. Either the demand is justifiable or it is
not. By what warrant does a State mandate that its subjects "pay up or leave"
as, for example, a landlord might announce to his tenant? The State may have
the physical power to enforce its demands, but power is not self-justifying. On
the local level, a bully has analogous power, but no corresponding right, to
push others around. Since taxing entities ring our planet, there is little
short-term hope of finding refuge from taxation. That omnipresence, however,
does not prove it moral rightness. Might does not make right, to coin a phrase.
As with chattel slavery, which was once as global as taxation is, the only
coherent goal with respect to the latter, as I see it, is not containment but
abolition. Let parasites and aggressors "up and leave," but let producers and
traders be. I see no basis for Mr. Burns's proposition that by remaining on the
territory over which a government claims a monopoly of force, I am "implicitly
agreeing" with that relationship. (I may, of course, "recognize" that hegemony
the way, say, Hezbollah "recognizes" the State of Israel.)
When I contract with others in the expectation of enjoying certain benefits, I
may also simultaneously generate obligations to pay for things I may not want.
Taxation, however, does not enter peoples' lives that way. By the time it is a
live issue for anyone, he discovers that his "social security" number is
already his "taxpayer identification" number. It was never optional. There is
no correlation between what you pay in taxes and what you want from the State.
Any satisfaction is purely coincidental and comes at the cost of the many other
satisfactions one is forced to forego.
Peaceful producers and traders are "justified in employing coercive
expropriation to recover" fees to which they are contractually due, as long as
they do so in a way that is not itself criminal. Nothing justifies impulsive,
disproportionate violence in the name of restitution. For example, the man who
knocks another man down and takes a watch from him may, for all passers-by know
to the contrary, not be a mugger at all, but rather a mugging victim retrieving
his watch from one. The uncertain passers-by will not responsibly interfere ...
unless the mugging victim with the upper hand seems about to inflict deadly
force against the subdued mugger. One purpose of a system of courts is to
resolve such ambiguities.
Mr. Burns's question, "does ... the management structure [have] the moral
justification to employ coercion?," receives an affirmative answer, then, but I
hasten to emphasize the coercion's defensive quality. It does not initiate force
or violence, but rather defends against or responds to it. (In this case, "it"
refers to the fraud committed by the reneging unit owner, fraud being a species
As I wrote in my earlier contribution to this discussion, "... the State has no
resources it did not acquire by force or the threat thereof. The State is not a
family whose individual members have voted on where to go for their summer
vacation and who now must cooperate to make the trip a success. Neither ... is
the State a club to which we owe dues."  I must now add: And neither is the
State like a condominium board of managers who are fiduciaries of unit owners
at whose pleasure they sit.
If anyone thinks that the ladies and gentlemen who wield redistributory power
are related to taxpayers as fiduciaries to principals, philosophy cannot help
1. Anthony Flood, "Redistributionism Continued," Philosophy Pathways, No. 56,
20 April 2003 http://www.philosophypathways.com/newsletter/issue56.html .
2 In commenting on the ethics of Irving Babbitt who referred to the "Will to
Refrain," Henry Hazlitt observed "a curious gap in the English language. The
verb restrain has the noun-form restraint, but the verb refrain (though similar
in origin through the Latin and the French) has no noun-form refraint. For the
noun we are obliged to fall back, confusingly, on restraint (which implies
coercion by others) or, asymmetrically, on self-restraint or abstention. The
noun refraint would serve a useful purpose." 'The Foundations of Morality,' Los
Angeles: Nash, 1964, p. 377, n. 12. Online edition:
http://www.hazlitt.org/e-texts/morality/ . See note 12 of Chapter 22:
3 Tony Flood, "A Comment on Professor Wolff's 'Four Forms of Redistribution,'"
Philosophy Pathways, No. 53, 9 March 2003,
(c) Anthony Flood 2003
III. 'SPEAK UP - REFLECTIONS ON THE PATHWAYS CONFERENCE' BY MICHAEL WARD
Over two millennia ago Socrates paid a price few of us would today and ended
his life rather than give up practicing philosophy. Freedom of speech is a
concept rendered somewhat pointless when nobody is listening and this is an
experience many of us feel we have in the world today - so many words spoken
and so little said. Have you ever asked who else do you talk to about
philosophical ideas apart from yourself?
So it's refreshing to find an oasis where the ideas we each hold can be bounced
off other like minded people. My introduction to the Pathways Conference
occurred when I embarked upon the Pathways program. Initially the conference
was operated on servers in the UK and has now moved to Nicenet in California,
not that that makes any difference to what we say but the format now makes it
easier to follow threads or topics of interest.
Some members visit occasionally and others like me daily when I can. There is
however a critical mass or number who need to be involved to make the
conference lively and by my own experience having set up a "Philosophers Cafe"
this should be a minimum of around six people but more is better.
The topics discussed vary considerably as does both the background and
geographical location of the participants and this is part of the benefit of a
world wide site. If you hold a particular perspective on life then you may find
an ally but more likely you will need to begin to substantiate your position -
thus making your examined life worth living.
The Nicenet site started in January this year and is currently around 450
postings. Picking up on some of the past themes these have included:
can philosophy save the world?
what is self?
artificial versus natural intelligence
emotional versus rational thinking
practical uses of philosophy in education
communities of inquiry
hope and freedom
genetics and memes
religion and politics - always popular!
East versus West
consequences of neuroscience
- and many many others!
Discussion threads take on a life of themselves and as the forum is not
moderated we are not disciplined in keeping 'to the point' whatever you thought
that was. The threads evolve in directions that suit the interests of the
members but often return to common points of fundamental difference.
Frustration appears occasionally when issues of the rational versus the
emotional lead to irreconcilable differences (but then I would say that
wouldn't I?), still the same members keep returning so there must be a benefit.
Would I recommend that you join, well yes of course or at the very least try it
for a while by being a spectator - though if you are anything like me you won't
be able to keep quiet for long!
Does the conference have any shortcomings, well yes of course it isn't perfect
and cannot challenge face to face contact but given the time difference between
the USA and Europe most of us get regular sleep.
From a personal perspective I find myself eagerly logging in to see if the
exocet missile I have just released hit the target, most times it fizzled out
or the target disappeared. With a spread of participants the discussions are
challenging, for if everyone agreed with everyone else then wouldn't life be
So that's the gauntlet thrown down - you won't know what you're missing if you
don't pick it up. I trust Geoffrey will acquaint you with the technical
details, speak with you soon I hope.
(c) Michael Ward 2003
From Geoffrey Klempner:
To join the Pathways Conference at Nicenet.org you must be a member of the
Philosophical Society of England (PSOE) and/ or International Society for
To sign up for membership of the PSOE or ISFP, complete the Blue form on the
Pathways site at http://www.isfp.co.uk/membership.html .
To join the conference:
1. Send an e-mail to email@example.com requesting a 'class key'.
You will receive your class key in a day or two.
2. Visit http://www.nicenet.org
3. Click the link 'For Students: Join a Class'
4. Enter your class key.
5. Choose your user name and password, and enter your real name and e-mail
6. The next time you visit nicenet.org enter your username and password.
7. I have set up three conference 'Topics':
New Participants only
Old Participants only
The Use and Value of Philosophy
8. 'The Use and Value of Philosophy' is the main area for the conference.
Occasionally messages are posted on 'New participants only'. You can
use this area to carry on side discussions.
9. A tip: set your display to show 'messages posted since last login'.
That is the easiest way to keep track of activity on the conference.
- Happy conferencing!
Philosophy Pathways is the electronic newsletter for the
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