PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue Number 9 3 June 2001
I. The Use and Value of Philosophy: Round Three
II. Brenda Almond's Inaugural Lecture
III. Links, Links and more Links!
I. THE USE AND VALUE OF PHILOSOPHY: ROUND THREE
In Round 3 of the Pathways internet conference I asked the participants to 'write about a philosophical theory or idea that puzzles or intrigues you...a philosophic vision, an idea, a concept that gets under your skin. Possibly, you may be led to draw some conclusions about the activity we call "philosophy" from your chosen example.' Here is Laura Laine Kelley's contribution:
'The Consolations of Philosophy'
This past Tuesday I went to Prairie Lights, a local bookstore, to hear Alain de Botton read from his "Consolations of Philosophy" for a stop on his brief tour through the U.S.'s Midwest. From the outset he explained to the seated and radio audiences that his style of philosophizing is other than what one would find at universities. He practices a "wisdom" philosophy in the fashion of thinkers of the past, and proceeded to recount brief biographies and related commentaries and contemporary anecdotes inspired by Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
He's a terrifically witty and succinct synthesizer - but not, I think, a philosopher.
Afterwards, as I reflected on the reading with a friend over a glass of Pinot Blanc at a nearby restaurant terrace, under full moon and trees in spring bloom (and de Botton entertained by a zealous co-ed within), I wondered how my notions of philosophy have evolved over the past couple of years. These are timely musings since I hope to wrap up my Pathways courses in the next couple of months: What drew me to philosophy to begin with? How would I have responded to de Botton prior to my Pathways studies? He speaks to a mainstream audience, and inspired my friend, a high school English teacher, to read further; but now that I have been tutored, is the de Botton style of philosophy spoiled for me?
A couple of days prior to the reading, I downloaded Geoffrey's May 1st Glass House notebook page. It was the one reflecting responses from PHILOS-L on "How much math[s] does a philosopher need?" What a contrast! The math commentaries inspired me to think of brilliant students I've known, and whether their intellect enhanced their capacity for wisdom. A high school valedictorian and fellow cross country buddy of mine - a tortured soul if ever there was one - came to mind. He went on to study math in prestigious undergraduate and graduate schools in the U.S. before turning to specializing in memory at UCLA's Psychology department. I was "honored" in one of the "Thought Provoker" books he wrote for Key Curriculum Press (1992, Berkeley, CA) by being portrayed as a cartoon character on page/item #32 titled "Philosopher": "One day at noon, Laura runs to the top of a mountain. She sits and ponders the meaning of life until the next day at noon at which time she runs down the mountain along the same trail that she ran up. Was she necessarily at some point on the mountain trail at the same time on both days? Prove your answer." There's a goat with a question mark in a thought balloon above its head midway up the mountain. The "Laura" sits rather daintily on top, looking nowhere near as exhausted as she should feel, and with way pookier lips than I. She has a blank look on her face.
If any thoughtful meaning of life is going on in the portrayal it's in the goat.
Had I thought, as I embarked on my studies, that math had anything to do with philosophy I would have turned about and fled down that metaphorical mountain (how apt to have once had it grace the Pathways home page) in haste. Has anything changed for me now? Am I, despite my failure as a math student (and cross country runner) improved by my studies in philosophy?
(And wouldn't the haste with which I would've fled meant that I would NOT have necessarily been on some point at the same time other than at the start?)
I suspect that de Botton's audience could care less about mathematical and logical proofs. I think they want to know what makes sense: sense about life, sense about heartache and failure and rejection and rage and poverty... and, dang it, sense about why men are invariably attracted to sexy co-eds, and what can maturing women (sitting on the terrace sipping Pinot Blancs as another springtime "blooms by") do about it? They want to know what makes sense in how to deal with life.
John Greenwood, of the PHILOS-L, responded to the math question by writing: "The study of philosophy is the study of philosophy's own history." This is what de Botton is doing in recounting biographies of some of the great thinkers. But he's also, through the process, illuminating the great thinking. As John Shand replied to PHILOS-L: "The point about philosophy is range and depth, and being able to distinguish rubbish from good stuff, not cutting things down in an act of pre-emptive intellectual narrowing just in case one is corrupted by bad stuff." Even though in their personal lives, some of de Botton's thinkers behaved like "snivelling creeps" (to quote another term used by a member of this illustrious list), they model the potential of how to think well, and, more importantly, how to make sense (albeit, not necessarily about topics you or I would choose to care for).
We're all challenged to work through our distortions and biases. Finding a way, a path, a method by which to proceed is the hope that philosophy offers, and seems a worthy endeavor for the process if not for the results.
Though damned if I can prove it.
(c) Laura Laine Kelley 2001
II. BRENDA ALMOND'S INAUGURAL LECTURE
On Saturday, 26th May Professor Brenda Almond, the newly elected President of the Philosophical Society of England, gave her inaugural lecture at the Society AGM, on the topic 'Biomedical Technology in Humanist Culture'.
Professor Almond described the ways in which fundamental aspects of human culture such as our notions of parenthood and the family, and the respect with which human beings of different cultures treat the bodies of the dead, are under serious attack from advances in biotechnology.
Two examples were given. Advances in transplantation techniques have meant that it is now possible for the organs from a single donor to be distributed to over a hundred recipients. While few would question the right of an individual to permit their body parts to be donated after their death, the potential result when no limits are imposed is that the human body becomes viewed merely as a source of spare parts. Professor Almond noted that she had written her paper before the scandal at Alder Hey hospital, where the resident pathologist ransacked the bodies of children who had died there of all their major organs, in the majority of cases without their parents' knowledge. British TV saw scenes of grief stricken parents having to undergo the trauma of a second burial ceremony.
The second example was advances in in vitro fertilization which had given rise to two new categories of mother: the 'biological mother' who is the egg donor, and the 'birth mother' who is the egg recipient. Brenda Almond pointed out that although the British Government kept full records of egg donors, stringent precautions had been taken to prevent children from identifying their biological mother. This raised serious ethical issues. Since kinship, and the experience of giving birth, both play a part in the bond between mother and child, this rule seems artificial and unjust.
Professor Almond was highly critical of moral philosophers who sought to justify the benefits of unrestricted organ donation and in vitro fertilization by appeal to the utilitarian principle of the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number'. Utilitarians casually dismissed concerns over these developments as merely the expression of an irrational 'Ugh' factor.
In the lively discussion that followed Professor Almond's paper, one question raised was whether Professor Almond was not herself appealing to utilitarianism in arguing that the consequences of these biomedical developments were not beneficial but, on balance, harmful. Another question was whether in order to fend off accusations of appealing to the 'Ugh' factor, it was not necessary to give a full-blown philosophical justification for resistance to perceived attacks on humanist culture.
III. LINKS, LINKS AND MORE LINKS!
On June 1st, the prize draw the competition which launched Pathways 'Top 10 Philosophy Sites' took place. The winner was Michael Brett, who receives a copy of Geoffrey Klempner's book 'Naive Metaphysics'. Well done Michael!
The pattern of submissions to the 'Top 10 Philosophy Sites' page over the last few weeks has prompted a change in emphasis. From now on, every new site nomination will be put at the head of the list. In that way, visitors will have the opportunity to visit excellent philosophy sites which might only have received one or two votes.
No nomination will be wasted. If you have a site that you would like to nominate, all you need to do is complete the form on the 'Top 10' page, submit the form, and your favourite philosophy site will be added to the page.
The Pathways web site now provides three starting points for visitors who want to explore philosophy on the world wide web, each with its own unique character:
Pathways Top 10 Philosophy Sites https:---
Pathways Philosophy and Distance Learning Links Page https:---
Philosophy of A-Z: the Philosophy of (Almost) Everything http:---
On all three pages, the links have been collected by a process that can be best described as 'fortuitous chance' - each in a different way - rather than as a result of any systematic search, or an attempt to provide a comprehensive list. There are plenty of comprehensive philosophy links sites on the internet for those that need them: the problem is they give too much choice. The 'surprise and delight' factor is missing.
Try these pages out - and have fun!