Isaiah Berlin and the Vexing Issue of Liberty

When Isaiah Berlin died in 1997, his conceptions of liberty and value pluralism were to be read within the dying tradition of totalitarian politics, as implemented by Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. For the Russian-born thinker whose family escaped to England in 1921, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx were directly responsible for a warped interpretation of freedom enabling the state to force its citizens to conform to its own needs and ethereal collective aspirations.  His answer was a more realistic solution that ...

Mary Midgley: A Combative Philosopher

Mary Midgley, who died on the 10th October 2018, at the age of 99, belonged with Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot to a formidable quartet of gifted philosophers, all educated at Somerville College, Oxford, in the late 1930’s. Midgley was a late developer as her first noteworthy article on ‘The Concept of Beastliness’, appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1973, five years before the completion of her book Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, published ...

How Philosophy Can Save Your Love Life

Rare are the books which combine light-touched erudition and insightful confessions. John Kagg’s ‘American Philosophy’ certainly succeeds on both accounts. This title may first appear misleading for an early candid exploration into a failed marriage if the author-narrator didn’t prove to be a professional researcher of the origins of this strange outgrowth of the Western tradition: American Philosophy. The accidental discovery of a long abandoned family library in the remote mountains of New Hampshire prompts a most unusual journey of philosophical ...

Can Nothingness Be Defined?

Nothingness is a slippery philosophical concept which despite its apparent immateriality has always intrigued philosophers, theologians and spiritualists of all cultures. Western Philosophy has its roots in Greek thinking and its inherent belief in ‘Being’. In Plato’s case, his entire philosophical system rests on a priori certainty of the ‘existence’ of Pure Ideas. How could we attribute qualities or defects to something without assuming the presence or existence of that ‘something’? By adopting such a position, we are left with ...

Existentialist Novels

The summer months are ideal for making forays into neglected intellectual territories. Existentialist novels are traditionally reduced to two major works: Sartre’s Nausea (1938), a rich study of a character in search of historical as well as ‘existential’ truth and Camus’ The Outsider (1942), whose non-hero finds himself tragically involved in a murder case. But what characterises an ‘existentialist novel’ if not the quest for fundamental answers to perennial questions? In this respect, all of Dostoevsky’s works fit this description and the ...

Philosophy and May ’68 (Part 2)

Among the philosophers who exerted a strong influence on pre and post ’68 Continental philosophy was Jacques Deleuze (1925–1985). The latter explored new ways of thinking in his critical and highly original reinterpretations of Leibniz, Hume and especially Nietzsche’s works. as well as in his forays into psychoanalysis with his collaborator and friend Félix Guattari. Their Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, published in 1972, was a brave attempt at redefining the unconscious as a ‘desire-producing machine’ instead of a hidden theatre ...

For a Global Approach to Philosophy

All philosophies tend towards the same goal: the acquisition of wisdom, be it through transcendental meditation, spiritual contemplation or rational investigation. In a world open to all sorts of false claims, dangerous reinterpretations and approximations of so called ‘new truths’, philosophy, often under attack from malevolent quarters, has never appeared so urgently needed to repair our dented certainties and restore our belief in the power of objective reason and personal self-enlightenment. In his ambitious work Taking Back Philosophy. A Multicultural Manifesto (Columbia ...

Philosophy and May ’68 (Part 1)

Fifty years ago a spontaneous youth movement erupted and spread across the world, threatening to undermine the very foundations of prosperous nations, enjoying full employment and growing consumerism. This student revolt echoed, in scope, the short-lived 1848 revolutions in Europe and like them, ended up in frustration and disillusionment for millions of students and workers. The French ‘events’ of May ’68 encapsulated the essence of a profound social and political ‘malaise’ felt from Paris to San Francisco and Tokyo. Philosophy, ...

Two Conceptions of Philosophy: Williamson vs Scruton (Part 2)

In his response to Roger Scruton’s conception of philosophy, published in The Times Literary Supplement, dated 3 November 2017, Professor Williamson adopts a measured and rigorous approach, expected of a logician and philosopher of language. He first finds fault with his colleague’s assumption that the subject of experience ‘is not part of the empirical world’. What of the study of historical agents whose motivations can, indeed, be analysed scientifically by ‘adapting one’s methods to the nature of the problem (at ...

Two Conceptions of Philosophy: Scruton vs Williamson (Part 1)

To try and give a definition of ‘philosophy’ is as pointless as explaining how to ride a bike without inviting the person to just sit in the saddle and start pedalling. Philosophy is, first and foremost, a discursive activity and the voluble, often verbose, Socrates is its perfect embodiment. Born at a time of political turmoil and great mathematical developments, philosophy whose natural curiosity touches on every possible subject, soon found itself torn between solving moral and political issues, on ...