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pathways (ask a philosopher)

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 2 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from October — November 1999:

  1. Difference between philosophy and psychology
  2. Business ethics
  3. Marx, alienation and the classless society
  4. Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals
  5. Definition of 'existentialism'
  6. Where does time go?
  7. Are our lives governed by fate?
  8. 'Freedom is doing what one wants'
  9. A question of medical ethics
  10. Definition of 'anti-realism'
  11. Who was Smindurides of Sybara?
  12. Classifying Buddhism
  13. Has science made philosophy redundant?
  14. Problems with utilitarianism
  15. The ultimate reason for education
  16. Human beings and the landscape
  17. This statement is false

Ask a question Answer a question

Kanokwan asked:

I can't separate the the thinking of philosophers from that of psychologists. So I want to know, What is the difference between Philosophy and Psychology? Why should we study philosophy?

1. The best way to illustrate the difference between philosophy and psychology would be with a parable. After making the first Mars landing, a group of Earth astronauts encounter some Martians. Unfortunately, the minds of Martians work so differently from the minds of humans that despite many months of painstaking effort, only very slow progress is made translating Martian language into a human language. Martian psychology is so radically different from human psychology.

Yet there are areas where Martians and Humans can converse relatively easily. Martian and human scientists can compare views about the ultimate structure of matter. Martian and human mathematicians can talk about advances in set theory. Martian and human philosophers have no difficulty discussing the pros and cons of the philosophical theory of mind-body dualism.

2. Up until the present century, it was taken for granted that a full education would include the study of philosophy. Philosophers broadly agreed with Aristotle who defined man as the 'rational animal'. Aristotle believed that to live the best life it was necessary that we should exercise our mental faculties to their fullest extent, and to employ them for the best purposes. Philosophy was was the subject that fulfilled these demands better than any other human activity.

Nowadays, however, philosophers seem to have scaled down their expectations. Philosophy has become just another branch of academic study. I think that this is a pity. Present day philosophers have lost the sense of how vitally important philosophy is for living well.

Geoffrey Klempner


Sherman asked:

In what way can Kant and Mill's theories contribute to the Moral business environment?

The moral theories of Kant and Mill agree in defining the moral point of view as the viewpoint of disinterested impartiality. To respect every person as an 'end in themself', according to Kant's formula, entails seeing their needs and interests as absolutely on a par with the needs and interests of every other human being.

Yet the moral philosophies of Kant and Mill are in other respects diametrically opposed. For Mill, to act morally is to weigh up the consequences of one's action for human happiness or misery — hence the formula, 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number. For Kant, an action is moral only if it is motivated by a universal principle which holds for all rational beings, irrespective of the consequences.

How do Kant's and Mill's theories contribute to the moral business environment? There is a problem to resolve concerning what business is for. Marx caricatured business activity as the pursuit of narrow self-interest. Morality existed in a capitalist society, according to Marx, ostensibly to ensure rules of 'fair play', but in reality to ensure the dominance of one class by another.

What Marx seems to have missed was that fair competition is the spur for human progress. It is not true that 'all is fair in love, war and business'. We have to keep our promises. We have to consider the consequences of our actions for the well being of others. Yet we also accept the principle that 'the best man wins'.

In defining the moral business environment, Kant and Mill both have a part to play. It is important that certain actions should be regarded as absolutely unacceptable. It is also important that we should be prepared to widen our vision to look at the whole picture, and not just at the immediate effects of our actions.

My own view, however, is that both philosophers have missed something vital from the equation. Friendship, loyalty are virtues that do not fit well with the determination to be impartial at all costs. That is why my own emphasis would be on an 'ethics of dialogue', where rights and wrongs are decided, not absolutely for all time, but through negotation between interested parties.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mumtaz asked:

Why does Marx think human alienation can only be overcome in a classless society? What arguments can be used to accept or reject this statement?

To answer your question properly would require a long essay. I will simply try to indicate the main argument as I see it.

The essence of a class society, as it exists now, is tied to the concept of money. In a captalist society, a person's labour can be bought and sold for profit, just like any other commodity.

From this simple observation, it follows that there will be persons whose labour can be bought and sold, and persons who buy labour which they sell for profit in the form of products which labour has produced.

In the writings of the early Marx, there is justified moral outrage at the terrible conditions under which workers lived. But this was not what Marx meant by the worker being 'alienated'. In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx makes the fundamental assumption that the work that a person does is the only adequate expression of their humanity. I believe that this is a view which he held throughout his life. Work is the means by which we express the capacities which are specifically human, the capacities of intelligence, creativity. It is also the basis for the solidarity of society. We do not work alone, but share the tasks that need to be done.

In order for work to be a true expression of our humanity, therefore, we need to inhabit the world we have created by our work. This world is a world of artefacts and also a social world. The two go together.

This state of affairs cannot be reliably achieved under capitalism. In a society where there is a workers' class and a capitalist class, whether or not the worker is able to inhabit the world created by his work depends on how much he can afford. How much he can afford depends on how much his labour is valued in the marketplace. These are factors which lie outside the worker's power.

The key assumption here is marked by the term 'reliably' in the previous paragraph. Marx's criticism of money, or the idea that everything has a universal 'exchange value', is that the laws of the marketplace are independent of man's will. To live in such a society is to live in a state of unfreedom. It is this state of unfreedom which is the basis for the worker's 'alienation' (and also, incidentally, for the 'alienation' of the capitalist).

Geoffrey Klempner


Nelson asked:

I am struggling with Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. I do not quite understand the very notion of 'genealogy', which seems to integrate such diverse disciples as philology, history, psychology — to name just three. In what ways this new method compares or opposes other philosophical methods of dealing with moral questions? Would you, please, give some clues and specific bibliography (modern European languages) about this subject?

A 'genealogy of morals' as Nietzsche conceived it is an unmasking exercise. There are two main contrasts with a 'philosophical' approach.

The first contrast, which is not exclusive to Nietzsche, but which you will find in any contemporary writer on ethics who advocates a 'subjectivist' view, is between the explanation of why a certain belief is held and a justification of that belief. A currently popular theory is that ethical beliefs are 'memes', self-replicating ideas that survive in the competition between ideas because of their effects on the behaviour of people who get 'infected' by them. This explanation says nothing about whether the ideas are true or false. While the truth of a belief can, under certain circumstances, give it greater ability to survive (like the belief that fire burns), an idea which has the ability to survive is not necessarily true.

The second contrast is between a positive philosophical proof of the truth or validity of a given belief and a negative, dialectical exposure of an illusion. There are two aspects to the unmasking of illusion. You can show that the belief in question is incoherent or self-contradictory. That is what Nietzsche does in Twilight of the Idols when he calls Plato's theory of Forms of the Good, the True etc the 'last fumes of evaporating reality', or when he attacks Kant's 'categorical imperative' in the Genealogy. He is saying that the metaphysical theories of Plato and Kant are bankrupt and therefore incapable of justifying moral beliefs. The second aspect concerns the explanation of why we are tempted by the illusion in the first place. This is where Nietzsche gets the chance to display his impressive mastery of philology, history and psychology.

The best book to read on Nietzsche is still Walter Kaufmann's Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton). A good book to read from a modern analytic philosopher who advocates a subjectivist approach is J.L. Mackie Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin). Mackie bases his 'error theory' of ethics on what he terms the 'argument from queerness' and the 'argument from relativity'. Moral beliefs are relative to different cultures, therefore cannot be objectively true. Moreover, if moral beliefs were true, moral values would have to exist as 'queer' kinds of metaphysical objects. But no such objects can exist. Therefore moral beliefs cannot be objectively true.

Geoffrey Klempner


Colin asked:

What is a clear and concise definition of existentialism? All of the definitions I have read up to this point have only left me confused. I had a professor in college, Harvey Rabbin, who said that squirrels can not have existential thoughts because they do not contemplate their own deaths. I have just started the first Philosophy class to be offered at my high school, and I have found that high-school students are very receptive to philosophy. Is Philosophy offered in secondary school in England?

Philosophy is now offered as one of the 'Advanced' level or pre-university exams for secondary school students in England. However, there are still many schools who do not offer this subject. One of the problems is that the format of the A-level course, with its 'set texts', is not best calculated to excite the interest of school students. At Haileybury College, in Hertfordshire, Pathways program A, The Possible World Machine is being used for an 'Upper Sixth Form' course which I hope will be the pilot scheme for many similar school courses elsewhere.

Why does the contemplation of one's own death play such a pivotal role in existentialist philosophy? The key idea lies in the contrast between the traditional view of the self as essentially a 'subject of experience' (the view you find in Descartes, for example) and the view of the self as being in the world and living a life. Sartre in his introductory text Existentialism and Humanism gives the capsule definition of existentialism as the view that 'existence is prior to essence'. Here the intended contrast is with the philosopher Hegel.

There are no general or 'essential' truths that can be discovered about my nature or the way I ought to live, as Plato and Kant believed. Nothing follows about how I ought to live from the fact that I am a 'rational being'. All that remains is the determination to be 'authentic' (Heidegger), or not to live in 'bad faith' (Sartre). To realize that one is a 'being towards death', according to Heidegger, is to see the project of creating a life for myself as something to which I am ultimately answerable, not to others, not to God, but only to myself.

However, I believe that there is a deeper, root vision involved in the existentialist approach which is less to do with ethics than with metaphysics. You can get a glimpse of this vision simply by considering what it would make to render the proposition, 'I am CG' true. That proposition means nothing to me and everything to you. While the proposition, 'I am GK' means everything to me and nothing to you. This is the paradox which I grapple with in my book Naive Metaphysics. Existentialism points to an ultimate truth that cannot be grasped objectively, but is only accessible from the standpoint of a given finite subject. The existentialist philosophy of Sartre and Heidegger is no nearer than any other in making sense of this paradox.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jack asked:

I have a 'trick question' that I would actually sincerely like you to comment on, and perhaps change my mind about: 'Where does all the "time" past go to, and where is all the "time" to come stored? If we "feel" "time" passing, in which direction is it going?

There are two questions you can raise about the past. The first concerns the alleged 'flow' of time, and the difference between past, present and future. Not all contemporary philosophers writing on the nature of time are agreed that the difference between past, present and future marks a real distinction in the nature of things. Hugh Mellor in book Real Time (and his recent Real Time II — both books are published by Cambridge) argues that time is fully captured by the 'before-and-after' series of historical events. The terms 'past', 'present' and 'future' or the differences between tenses are explained as marking temporal relations between the event of an utterance or assertion and the event described in the assertion.

The seminal text to read is the argument against the reality of time by the metaphysician John McTaggart in The Nature of Existence (Cambridge) Vol II Ch. 33.

My own view is that the difference between past, present and future is real and not merely apparent, so I am in disagreement with Mellor, and also with McTaggart. I would reject your question, 'Where is time stored?' on the grounds that it presupposes that the past must somehow exist in, or alongside the present.

However, there is a second question one can raise about time which I find equally puzzling. This concerns the nature of past facts, or what it is that makes statements about the past true. Many events pass us by without a trace, or leaving only ambiguous and sketchy evidence from which they could be reconstructed. What makes it true, for example (if it is true) that my car used up more petrol today than it did yesterday, given that I did roughly equal mileage? There is no possible way of knowing, yet we feel that the answer 'must be there' in the past. However, in the absence of God or a recording angel, what would it mean to say that the answer is 'there in the past'?

An important article dealing with this problem is Michael Dummett's 'The Reality of the Past', reprinted in his collection of papers Truth and Other Enigmas (Duckworth).

Once again, I do not think that it is helpful to imagine that the past must be stored somewhere, in order to make statements about the past to be true or false.

Geoffrey Klempner


Crystal asked:

Do we have designated purposes in life? Are you fated to do certain things with your life? Or, do you have full control of your actions throughout life?

In order to tackle this question we first need to do a bit of philosophical analysis. There are three quite different ways in which you could be 'fated to do certain things with your life'.

1. Let's say the Gods on Mount Olympus have decided your 'fate', and there is nothing you can do, nowhere you can turn, to escape your destiny. Perhaps this is the way we should understand the story of Oedipus. The Gods don't need to be able to see into the future. They simply watch you and act accordingly. If you turn left, then whatever it is that you were going to meet up with is on the left. If you had turned right, it would have been on the right, because that is the way the Gods fixed it.

2. There is an all-knowing God, who can see into the future. So He already knows everything that you are going to do with your life. He has always known.

3. Just as there can be truths about what happened in the past or what is happening in the present whether we know these truths or not, so there are truths about what will happen in the future. There needn't be an all-knowing God who knows these truths. It is sufficient that the truths exist as unalterable facts.

- Now the question, whether you have 'full control of your actions throughout life' will be answered differently, depending on whether you are considering the possibility of 1, 2, or 3.

If 1. is correct, then we have very little control over our lives. We are mere puppets in the hands of higher powers, doing their will.

There has been much theological debate about whether as in 2. God's foreknowledge precludes free will. God, in creating the universe, foresaw all you would be and all you would do. So a case could be made for saying that whatever you do with your life is part of God's purpose. You make choices, which are 'free' insofar as no outside influence is brought to bear. So you are 'in control' in that limited sense. However, I don't find that a very happy prospect.

I find 3. the most interesting of all, because it doesn't depend on the belief in God, or Gods. This is the theory of 'philosophical fatalism'. Philosophical fatalism is the inspiration for an argument which has become known as the 'lazy sophism'. See if you can spot the fallacy:

a. Either it is true that I am going to get run over by a truck or it is false.

b. If the statement that I am going to get run over is true, then I will get run over however carefully I cross the road.

c. If the statement that I am going to get run over is false, then I will not get run over even if I walk slowly across the road fifty times without looking.

d. Therefore, there is no point in taking care crossing the road.

Geoffrey Klempner


Marc asked:

Is freedom a matter of doing what one wants to do?

My answer to your question depends on whether we are talking about the problem of political freedom, or the problem of freedom of the will.

In his essay On Liberty J.S. Mill defined the 'principle of liberty' which he wished to defend, as the freedom to do whatever you want, provided your actions do not harm anyone else. This qualification is important, because without it no form of political organization would be possible. A serious difficulty with the principle, however, is how you define 'harm'. If you are deeply offended by someone's appearance, or their sexual orientation does that mean they have 'harmed' you? Are you 'harmed' by people who refuse to wear seat belts, just because part of the extra costs borne by the accident and emergency services comes out of taxes? And so on.

One solution proposed to the problem of the apparent incompatibility of freedom of will with determinism, is to define a free action as an action I might not have done, if I had chosen not to. According to this definition, I am free provided that I am not made to do the action by someone else exerting force on me, and provided that I am mentally able to make a rational choice between alternatives. It follows that even though my action is determined by my psychological states, I can still act freely. The flaw in this 'compatibilist' strategy, I believe, is that it fails to face up to the problem that worries us about determinism. If I had chosen differently, I would have acted differently. But given my psychological state at the time when I made the decision, I could not have chosen differently.

Either way, freedom is not simply 'doing what one wants to do'.

Geoffrey Klempner


Kathleen asked:

I'm taking a course in philosophy of health care. One of the discussion questions was: In severe pain a patient refused the surgeons' offer to describe to the patient the nature and consequences of the procedure. She said that she trusted his judgement. The surgeon went ahead with the surgery and he gave her a blood transfusion that was necessary to save her life. It turned out that the patient was a Jehovah witness. She now wants to sue the doctor for not asking her consent in the matter, Do you think that she had in fact provided valid, informed consent?

I am assuming that the surgeon did not know that the patient was a Jehovah's Witness. We have to look at this question from two perspectives:

When the surgeon offered to describe the nature and consequences of the procedure, he assumed that the patient's concern was merely about the consequences for their health, or the risks involved in the operation. Had he considered the possibility that the patient might be a Jehovah's Witness, he could not reasonably have taken the patient's refusal of his offer as consent to a blood transfusion, given that he had not called the patient's attention to this matter. On the other hand, if the surgeon did not consider the possibility that the patient might be a Jehovah's Witness, then that might be considered negligence on his part.

Most people are not Jehovah's Witnesses. Therefore, given that the issue of blood transfusions is a very important one for a Jehovah's Witness, the patient ought to have volunteered this information. It is surely incumbent on any Jehovah's Witness going into an operation to request that they should not be given a blood under any circumstances, without waiting to be asked.

If one is looking to apportion blame, I feel that some blame must fall on both sides.

However, the question is 'Did the patient provide valid, informed consent?' The patient did not provide informed consent, because she declined the offer to be informed. It is a patient's right to be told the nature and consequences of an operation. In this case, however, the patient waived that right. It is irrelevant that neither she nor the surgeon had considered the issue of blood transfusions. The only question that will be before the Court is whether the right to be informed can be waived. If it can, the patient does not have a case against the surgeon.

Geoffrey Klempner


Bill asked:

What is Anti-Realism? I have various friends who claim to be Anti-Realists, and all disagree with each other. I have heard such expressions as 'Nothing is true unless it is known to be true' and 'there is no mind-independant Reality' spoken as if they are self-evident, whereas I think they are (nearly) self-evidently false. What is going on?

Realists disagree with each other too. On the Realist view of personal identity defended by Chisholm, in the thought experiment of human fission, there is a fact of the matter whether the person who undergoes fission into physically and mentally indistinguishable individuals X and Y will 'be' individual X or 'be' individual Y. Many philosophers who consider themselves 'Realist' would reject that solution to the problem of personal identity, on the grounds that neither we, nor X or Y themselves, would be able to tell who was the person who had survived, and who was a mere duplicate brought into existence at the moment of fission.

Or consider the nature of time. Some Realists would find the hypothesis of an 'empty time' — a period of time in which no events occur — acceptable, while others would find the hypothesis either unacceptable, or acceptable only on the assumption that one could predict when such periods would happen. Once again, the sticking point is the complete separation between the facts or the truth, and possible knowledge.

'Nothing is true unless it is known to be true' is an extreme form of anti-Realism. I do not know of any philosopher who holds that view. 'There is no mind-independent Reality' sounds like the immaterialist philosophy of Berkeley, according to whom to be is 'to perceive, or be perceived'. What is striking about Berkeley, however, is that the existence of God is an essential component of the theory. The result is as Realist as you can get. Nothing has happened or will ever happen that God doesn't know about. It's all down there in the blueprint or 'archetype' of the universe in God's mind.

What is anti-Realism? Anti-Realism concerns the nature of truth, rather than the nature of objects or existence. Berkeley was a Realist about truth, but believed that 'material objects' were nothing more than 'ideas'. In a series of articles, the Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett argues that verification rather than truth should be the central concept of a theory of meaning that would account for our understanding of the words which we speak. In learning a language, we are exposed to examples of when the obtaining of such-and-such a state of affairs is verified. We readily generalise from this knowledge to notions of 'what it would be' for a given proposition to be true, even though the proposition in question may be unverifiable. But these imaginings have no explanatory function. In Wittgenstein's words, they are like 'wheels that turn, even though no part of the mechanism turns with it'.

Dummett's central claim is that the law of excluded middle, valid on a classical interpretation of logic, cannot be justified by a verification conditions theory of meaning. I suspect he is wrong about this. My own challenge to the Realist would be much more simple and direct. Consider any meaningful proposition for which verification is clearly and unequivocally ruled out. (That's not difficult, there are billions, most of them very uninteresting.) Call it P. Now, the Realist wants to tell me something very important about P. What is it? Is P true? No, of course not. What the Realist wants to say is that P 'has' a truth value. What does that mean? To say that P is 'either true or false' is not to say anything at all. But what more can one add? In searching for more, you will find yourself going round in circles. Is that an adequate argument for Anti-Realism? — I don't know. Perhaps we are wrong in thinking that one needs to 'say' something more here.

Geoffrey Klempner


Ashley asked:

This is not exactly a philosophical question but I was wondering whether you could help me with a statement in Kenneth Head's essay, 'Does Life Have a meaning?'. Head states that, 'The search for knowledge does not, however, offer a universal panacea for the anguish of being. This point, also, is emphasised by Aristotle, again, in his Eudemian Ethics, when he speaks of 'those who admire Sardanapallus, or Smindurides of Sybara or one or other of those who live the pleasure-loving life...'. I would like to know who Smindurides of Sybara was? I am currently engaged in genealogical research and I am trying to find the origins of the name 'Sybara'. I conducted an Internet search for this name and found Mr. Head's essay.

I hope you will not mind receiving this unusual enquiry.

The following extracts from the entries in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles may be of interest to you:

Sybarite 1. A native or citizen of Sybaris, an ancient Greek city of southern Italy, noted for its effeminacy and luxury. 2. A person devoted to luxury or pleasure, an effeminate voluptuary or sensualist.

2. The Lords of Lacedaemon were true soldiers, But ours are Sybarites BYRON. The very room for an artist and a sybarite 1863.

Sybaritic 1. Of or pertaining to Sybaris or its inhabitants 1786. 2. Effeminately luxurious 1619.

2. Sybaritic dinners WARBURTON. An atomsphere of sybaritic enjoyment 1876.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mercedes asked:

How would you classiffy Budhism: under Utilitarian, Formalist or something else ( under another category )?. Is any religion that will be out of the category or Moral Theist?

Buddhism, as I understand it, is a religion, a metaphysics and also a non-theist moral philosophy.

I have always been struck by the close similarity between the Buddhist view that moral wrong-doing harms one's own self and Socrates' dictum that 'It is worse to do harm than to suffer it'.

The most notable difference between Buddhism and the philosophy of Socrates which set the pattern for thought about the soul in Western philosophy up to Descartes and beyond, is that in Buddhism the self is viewed as a mere appearance or illusion, a temporary combination of qualities, having no substantial reality.

In recent Western philosophy, however, views about the self have inclined strongly away from the Cartesian notion of a soul substance and towards a conception of the self which is much closer to Buddhism.

Derek Parfit argues in his book Reasons and Persons (Oxford 1984) that the relation between my present self and my past and future selves is one of similarity, not identity. I therefore have no reason to consider the needs of 'my' own future selves above the needs of other, more or less equally 'similar' selves. It is therefore irrational to put myself before others. This leads to a utilitarian moral philosophy, where, in calculating the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number', my own happiness is given the same value as the happiness of any other person.

Geoffrey Klempner


Dynanesh asked:

Is the term and the discipline of Philosophy really relevant now with the advancement of Science? Pure science seems to be working in a better way in finding the truth. it seems the science has advanced too far for a student of philosophy. i sometimes feel frustrated because of the lack of up-to-date knowledge of the scientific discoveries. and feel that I may be lagging behind the world. the questions and the answers to some of them that I have formulated may not even be relevant, this is what I feel.

Now something personal.. I am an architect and I try to analyse architecture from the philosophical point of view. The word philosophy may not be correct. It may just be a study of human psychology and study of human behavour. But that is precisely the problem. I want to know where I stand.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the philosopher Auguste Comte put forward the view, known as 'Positivism', which held that philosophical or metaphysical thinking is merely the stage that human inquiry goes through before it becomes scientific. In the first part of the twentieth century Carnap and Ayer developed the theory of 'logical positivism'. The philosopher was now seen as having the task of analysing concepts and revealing the logical structure of language. The only facts that could be stated were empirical facts, or the facts of science. The meaning of a statement consisted, according to Carnap and Ayer in its 'mode of verification'. The statements of metaphysics were rejected as meaningless, because they could not be verified.

At the present day, positivism and logical positivism have relatively few adherents. Philosophy is recognised both within and outside the academic world as a fully legitimate enterprise, capable of adding to the storehouse of human knowledge. Metaphysics has regained a considerable portion of the ground that it lost under the attacks of the logical positivists.

You speak of 'analysing architecture from a philosophical point of view'. Today, aesthetics is a flourishing branch of philosophy. Architecture is just one of many arts that are investigated in aesthetics. One influential book that you should try to have a look at is Roger Scruton Art and Imagination (Methuen London 1974). Scruton pays particular attention to architecture.

Geoffrey Klempner


Thomas asked:

In Act-Utilitarianism, how can an agent still act, if the other person has no reason to believe that it's true, because it might just be said to bring about the best consequences? How can an act-utilitarian still act according to his belief? And similarly, how can I not desire mere happiness as an end in itself, but desire things as an end in themselves so that happiness occurs by the way (what Mill suggests in his autobiography), if I am truly ingrained with the Utilitarian theory? Does not the knowledge of it, erode it?

1. In act utilitarianism, the objectively best action is the one that brings about the best consequences, measured, e.g. in terms of total happiness. It is irrelevant whether any of the persons affected by the action believe in act utilitarianism or not, or agree with the agents calculation of the best consequences or not. Furthermore, as Mill makes clear in 'Utilitarianism', when we act on the basis of a incorrect calculation of the best consequences, we fail to do the objectively best action, but that does not in any way impugn our moral virtue. A good man can, through ignorance, do a bad action.

One curious feature of this theory is that it may be a necessary part of acting so as to bring about the best consequences, that one succeeds in convincing another person of the falsity of act utilitarianism, because one knows that they would be likely to make an incorrect calculation. Generally, it seems quite likely, as Bernard Williams has argued, that the state of affairs with the best consequences for human happiness is one where the majority of persons never calculate their actions according to the act utilitarian theory. The act utilitarian can quite easily take this on board.

2. Just as it may be necessary for me to convince another person that they should not calculate their actions by the act utilitarian theory, so it seems likely that the best way I can attain happiness for myself is to choose projects which I believe will make me most happy, then deliberately 'forget' about act utilitarianism and throw myself whole heartedly into those projects.

However, from time to time, I may face prudential or moral dilemmas. When that happens, I will need to have recourse to act utilitarianism once more.

Geoffrey Klempner


Amanda asked:

How could I define the ultimate reason for education, in a metaphysical sense?

I recently went with my wife and three young daughters to see the Walt Disney cartoon film Tarzan. I was not expecting to enjoy the experience, but as things turned out I found the film very entertaining. The part that really gripped me, however, is where Jane and her father undertake Tarzan's education, using books and magic lantern slides. The slides depict cities, industry, historical events, planets and stars.

Tarzan is awe-struck, filled with wonderment.

You could say that Tarzan acquired a lot of knowledge in a short period of time. They stuffed his head full of facts. But that is not all that happened. Jane and her father took a man whose whole world was the immediate environment in which he lived, and enlarged that world to encompass the universe.

Our sense of who we are changes with the broadening of perspective. History, archeology, paleontology, cosmology provide ever broadening vistas of our place in time, just as geography, anthropology, astronomy broaden our vision of our place in the universe.

A different set of perspectives is introduced when we learn to reflect on what it is to be human, on the nature of human society.

When Aristotle and Plato remarked that philosophy begins with wonder, they were not talking about the subject we now call 'philosophy', but rather the search for understanding and explanation sought by the human and natural sciences. In a metaphysical sense, the primary aim of education is to excite that sense of wonder about the universe and our place in it.

Geoffrey Klempner


Nadine asked:

I am a student of Landscape Architecture, currently considering 'What is it that makes a human move through the landscape or an environment and what do you perceive the changes in these reasons to be through time?'

The first thing we need to get clear about is in what sense what you have asked could be considered a philosophical question.

One can ask what enables human beings to move through the landscape or one can ask what motivates human beings to move through the landscape. No doubt there are interesting things to say about the change in modes of transport over time, as there are changes in the reasons why people travel rather than choosing to stay put. But somehow, I don't think that either of those questions is the question you are asking.

In order for there to be such a thing as moving through an environment or a landscape, there has to be such a thing as being in an environment or a landscape. The philosophical point to make here is that human beings, persons, are found in, or find themselves to be in an environment or a landscape in a fundamentally different way from the way that artefacts or natural objects are found there.

The relation between a human being or a boulder or a tree to a landscape is, on the most abstract level, that of 'figure and ground', to use the language of Gestalt psychology. The landscape is static, or relatively static, whereas it is the object that moves. The tree is blown down by the wind, the boulder falls down the mountain in an avalanche.

The difference is that human beings are not merely placed in the landscape in an objective sense, but in addition subjectively place themselves in relation to that landscape. This transforms the static array of objects in various relations into a dynamic web of tools to be taken up and used, obstacles to be overcome. A place to live, that makes life possible. A place that we find and also create, that gives us a reason for getting from A to B, which may not necessarily be simply that we find ourselves at A and want to be at B. (It is a fact to wonder at, that travel is enjoyed for its own sake.)

I can see endless lines of investigation to pursue from this point. What I have said may be completely irrelevant to your interests, or not. I just don't know. I would be interested to hear what you make of the question!

Geoffrey Klempner


Susan asked:

The question I have before me, from a philosophy course is: What is the truth-value of the following statement?

This statement is false.

My instructor thinks we might have fun with this, that it is like a riddle. I don't think this is funny. Could you help me?

The question is funny-peculiar rather than funny-haha. There are philosophical jokes, but this isn't one of them. Like all good philosophical paradoxes, it exposes our lack of understanding of a concept. I do, however, agree with your instructor that it is a question you can have a lot of fun with.

One doesn't need to study philosophy to realize that truth is a problem. In 'This statement is false', the problem turns up in a completely unexpected place. The worry posed by this childishly simple paradox has nothing to do with the limits of human knowledge, or the relation between facts and values, or the nature of scientific laws, all questions which cast doubt on our ability to define truth. Yet the doubts it raises are no less potent.

'This statement is false' can't be true and it can't be false. If it's true, then it's false, if it's false then it's true. Either way, you end up contradicting yourself. But it can't be neither true nor false, because that implies contradiction too.

So the task is to find some principled reason why one is not permitted to raise the question whether a statement like 'This statement is false' is true. Suppose we said that a statement was not allowed to refer to itself. That won't do. You can make the statement, 'This statement is in English' which is true, or 'This statement is in French' which is false.

What about, 'This statement is true'? No contradiction there. Yet there is definitely something funny going on. 'This statement is in English' reports a fact. whereas 'This statement is true' doesn't report a fact. Should we say then that a statement can be true only if it reports a fact? That's no good, because we want to say that examples of the laws of logic, like 'If it's raining then it's raining' are true even though they don't report facts.

Still, there is a strong suspicion that the principle we are looking for to rule out the question whether 'This statement is false' is true is also going to rule out the question whether 'This statement is true' is true. And so it goes on. Whatever principle we come up with, it has to be an essential part of a definition of truth, not tacked on as an afterthought.

The logician Alfred Tarski, in his famous paper on the 'Definition of truth in Formalized Languages', thought he had found an acceptable solution, but his complicated theory of an infinite hierarchy of 'meta-languages', each one of which is allowed to refer to statements made in the language below, remains a matter of debate today.

Geoffrey Klempner