Are There Any Limits to Free Expression?

There’s a lot of water under the bridge since my post yesterday on the burning Grenfell effigy case and the dialogue I’d already started with Stephen Knight (GodlessSpellchecker -GS for short). Not least that GS subsequently “tapped-out” (sic) his own post, and overnight has drawn compare-and-contrast attention to another non-free-speech crime against Grenfell (a compensation fraud).

The pile-on continues with a great deal of the whataboutery of seemingly Socratic questions mostly unrelated to the case I’d described. (All questions answered by me incidentally, even where already addressed by the original post and links, except where rhetorical questions implying straw-men.)

However lots, most, of it ad hominem against me a being “a buffoon who hasn’t thought this through”, or some who “can’t spot the difference between different cases”, etc – when clearly I have done little else but address these. The reason the freedom-extremists haven’t is because they stop at first base and don’t feel the need to think, or give any respect to any thought, of alternatives.

A lot of time-wasting could have been saved by GS simply answering the first question in my previous post “When is Free Speech a Hate Crime?“. If your answer is “Never.” – as in the case of GS and his echo-chamber – then not surprisingly, none need ever consider the caveats and nuances of when it might be. No actual dialogue occurs.

In GS’s own post, since he is starting from the “Never.” position, he uses much the same previous examples as I did, without any acknowledgment of any issues I’d raised, but applies the same simple rule. Never. They’re all wrong. There is no discussion of any of the nuances that make the contexts of public bad taste jokes scenarios, their motivations and intended audiences, and their necessary public responses, all different (and all already covered by me). (If there is any motivation to progress this dialogue, with respect, feel free to point out any arguments I might have missed. However please ensure my case is properly represented also – both posts and links read and taken into account. I’d recommend starting with a Steelman?)

It’s interesting to contrast with Peter Tatchell’s position, speaking on BBC R4 PM yesterday. Someone who has experienced both sides of this as the victim, on behalf of LGBTI groups, of prejudiced acts of hate-speech, and as the user of free-speech to (attempt to) ban free speech (!) in the past (Fairy Tale of New York anyone?). Some might suggest hypocritical, I say a sophisticated position given the complexity of any such case. He says pretty clearly this Grenfell effigy case should not be a criminal matter, he’s probably right, but also that we must be very careful because there are exceptions where so-called free-speech becomes an offense that society must sanction, criminally or otherwise. Pretty much my position, he could be my Steelman, after which the devil is in the detail.

An aside to the immediate point of this thread, but there is one agenda item starkly exposed here. This demand for “unequivocal simplicity” in response to a complex situation, if I can’t express my own position in 280 characters I clearly don’t understand it myself apparently. I call it simplistication – that ensures that most of the social-mediated interaction reinforces the simple (bad) choice and drowns out any nuanced (good) discussion, any proper dialogue. Pure memetics that simple ideas spread quickly and easily whereas good ideas do not, when unmediated by any slower variety of rationality – wisdom(?) for short. Not the immediate point here, but related two ways in fact: the (shock-horror) concept of social-media requiring moderation (more anti-free-speech shock horror); and conversely the idea that there are “rules” of free-speech to be respected. Anyway:

How can free-expression be free if there are rules to moderate it?
What does respect – for the rules – have to do with it?

My recurring agenda throughout this dialogue, and indeed the point of the original dialogue – including the post and the linked material on jokes, etc – has indeed been respect. Respect. Respect for what?

Firstly, given the “never” response to the first question, the specifics of Grenfell effigy case are no longer relevant. Knowing that, is why I had already suggested a thought experiment variation – burning an Auschwitz / Jews effigy?

[Now this kind of thought experiment is basically trolleyology; the variation of fixed objective variables in an ethical dilemma framed as an instrumental choice in a physical arrangement – switching points to change the victim of a runaway rail car, etc. I’m only using it to get to the point that there are exceptions to “never”. Trolleyology, like Socratic questioning, never gets much beyond Ethics-101 when it comes to practical analysis of real life complexity. It makes you think, even if it doesn’t satisfactorily answer the questions.]

Is hateful free-speech against (say) Jews a hate crime?

Public expression of hateful thought – burning effigies, daubing gravestones, displaying placards, sharing stereotypical images, explicit and implicit commentary on such acts? At what point is such action incitement or abetting incitement of acts of real consequence against unfairly vulnerable groups in society? It is always a question of immediate victims – who may or not be damaged or “offended” – and the implied or explicit class or group victimised.

If your answer is still never. Free expression, no exceptions, no concept of hate-speech ever, then I can’t help you. I suspect the remaining question here is simply the criminal policing aspect of any social boundaries of gross public bad-taste twattery and consequences for transgressors.

In the Grenfell effigy case public sanction and investigation of transgressor motivations and potential victim consequences was entirely correct. Whether we have any machinery other than police to do that is a separate question as is, having done the investigation, whether any criminal proceedings beyond warning of transgression are taken by the police. Motivations and contrition – name and shame, and sincere public apologies – affect that decision. (Tatchell also agreed on this.)

That decision is a socially negotiated response; cease and desist and reparation or punishment if not, whether police and criminal or not. Society’s message to would be transgressors – to think before you express your free thoughts, and that we take respect for the rules of free-speech seriously. Free speech is so important to us that its rules matter to us.

[Consequences of such decisions do not physically constrain free-thought and expression. In fact, the “martyrdom” of being formally punished is always part of the social campaigner’s armoury towards long-term change to the rules of a free-democratic, death-penalty-free society.]

But motivations and contrition are a matter of whether we and the transgressors respect that any boundaries exist. Free speech is not free of consequences, and we are not free of responsibility for those consequences.

The same is true of any dialogue, any exchange of expressed ideas. This is especially true if the dialogue involves obvious disagreements – which is where this dialogue on respect started – that disagreement is more essential than respect, or that respect is just as important? Respect for the constraining rules of free dialogue. And part of that respect is taking personal responsibility for the consequences of transgressing the rules.

Society is indeed “sick” – but not because it is “outraged” by disrespect.


[Post Note: The pile-on continued much reduced, and GS did respond after this one intelligent intervention:

Time will tell if GS (or his entourage) will take the hint and continue the dialogue with a Steel-man, or whether the spurious Straw-men and Ad-hominems will continue. Until then …. next topic?]

[Try this for a Steelman:

  • There are rules and rules are there to be respected – even if broken and the consequences respected.
  • In free-speech – free-expression of free-thought enshrined right from the top at the UN – the thought and expression are never a crime in themselves. Such thought and expression may always be “offensive” to someone.
  • But, there are rules about motivation for choosing to express them, choosing audiences and contexts for that expression, and choosing to publicise their expression, including questions related to potential victimisation of disadvantaged groups beyond the immediate audience and victims (if any) of the immediate physical expression.
  • These rules will never be simple to legislate for every objective possibility, yet society needs to enforce and sanction their transgression, escalate such sanctions on repeat transgressors, publicly uphold the values in the rules and incentivise potential transgressors to modify their future behaviours and so on.
  • The law and enforcement by police are a blunt instruments for such problematic value-based rules. It’s is only a matter of practical alternatives that police and criminal process are brought to bear in public cases – usually initially to question motives and context and warn of potential consequences where judged necessary. It would take further circumstantial evidence before any consideration of any such case being brought into the criminal justice system – but the possibility may always need to be considered. My personal preference would be something like “community policing” before getting anywhere near the criminal system, but the glare of publicity in such cases generally means a clean audit trail – eg of questioning under caution – is probably unavoidable in practice. I’m not the legal expert. Suspicions under public order offenses is probably as good a fudge as any available. God forbid anyone suggests “thought police” 😉
  • But, these are practical enforcement issues that do not change the basic premise that, even in free-speech, there are rules to be respected.
  • And, my ORIGINAL MAIN POINT, that this respect of rules – mostly the same rules incidentally – applies in ANY discourse, especially where there is obvious disagreement and not just those that escalate to public offense.


[Oh, and by the way, talk about tedious …
During this dialogue I’ve suspended my policy of:

“Block all tweeps who like a mention
but offer no other interaction
and no evidence in their own bio
of genuine interest in the actual topic.”

Used to be my pinned tweet, may have to reinstate it.
Ho hum.]

When is Free-Speech a Hate Crime?

The bonfire-burning an effigy of Grenfell complete with victims, as some kind of entertaining joke, is the latest free-speech battleground according to some. It’s very like the Count Dankula case, that is it’s very complicated. And as I type, this case is referred for investigation, no actual crime necessarily. It’s a complex decision that could go either way, but whatever the verdict, the referral sparks the public thought process. [See BBC update in second post-note below.]

I might characterise the battleground as those that see free-speech as trumping all other responsibilities vs those that beg to differ, though as I say it is invariably more complicated and characterising it as a binary battle doesn’t do the topic justice.

Freedom of thought and expression is probably one of the most inalienable rights enshrined quite rightly in UN law. Of course, as soon as one expresses an idea – the content of which is entirely free of any constraint – the question of why, where, who, context arises. So the expression of free-thought is a decision to speak or act which comes with responsibilities.

So we also have the concept of hate-speech (and hate-acts expressing hateful ideas) captured in practical law, where the free-expression targets a class of victims, and their human rights become a consideration.

In the Grenfell case, the individuals (potentially) represented are the class of people living in that kind of accommodation under those conditions. Typically, in most of the ongoing debate around Grenfell, a group seen as a mostly ethnically and economically disadvantaged, compared to their institutional landlords. This is an ongoing class with ongoing rights for which we have ongoing responsibilities.

One commentator, Stephen Knight, compared the act with burning effigies of Guy Fawkes or Boris Johnson say. To focus the mind in making the contrast, I suggested replacing Grenfell and it’s victims with a representation of (say) an Auschwitz camp hut complete with Jewish occupants?

In the Fawkes / BoJo case, the point is respect for what the individual represents. We burn Fawkes to remind ourselves that despite our daily dissatisfaction with government, we respect the imperfect institution. We burn BoJo (or Maggie) for similar reasons – the individual hate-figure – because we can, to claim the freedom to do so, yet still respect the imperfect institutions in their being duly elected representatives. There is no disadvantaged class being victimised by the act of expression, indeed the symbolic opposite.

Switching out Grenfell for Auschwitz in the thought experiment would make the victims “semites” rather than a less well-defined presecuted class. We would be adding to the anti-semitism debate. But we still have a class of (potentially) persecuted victims, if less focussed.

At that point, as I say, it is very similar to the Dankula case (see the Baddiel analysis) the complexity of which hinges on understanding the motives (and audience) of the act as well as the nature of the target of the joke. And like that case, the private-party vs select-audience vs public-sharing is going to matter in terms of what the actors knew and intended. It’s the wide public sharing that creates the legal dilemma – between freedom and hatred. The jury is still out.

Conveniently, Stephen Knight had forgotten a one-to-one 10/12 tweet exchange we had yesterday on the need for respect in progressive dialogue. It’s about respect for the rules of engagement when other humans are on the other side of your position. I respect Stephen, I see the sincerity in his many religion vs atheism campaigns, even if I think he’s misguided in his extreme-freedom position. Enough respect for a nuanced dialogue beyond simply “taking no prisoners” on a point of disagreement.

I won’t post the whole twitter exchanges, but you’ll find them in the threads above and below these two pairs:


[Post Note: and of course there is a whole twitter thread following this post, including a pile-on of ad-hominems and “likers” for his subsequent Socratic questions and straw-men (all of which I’ve answered) with no other constructive contributions. And of course, in real time, only two clicks on the actual post. Ended for now with this ….

I’ve said what needed saying.]

[Post Note: And on the specifics of this case – updated BBC story – clear grounds to check possible hate crime. Making this opinion public:

“That’s what happens when they don’t pay their rent.”

That use of “they” & “their” does suggest deliberate and objective reference to the victim group, as I suggested.]

[Post Note: And more … the public conversation, unrelated to the specific dialogue above:

“It depends”. It’s complicated.
This one will run with good humour for a while yet

[Post Note: Stephen Knight – GodlessSpellchecker – has subsequently posted his own thoughts, though sadly ignoring – positively rejecting! ridiculous! incompetent! (disrespecting?) – the whole dialogue from my side. Anyway, he’s clearly parked in the “society is sick for sanctioning hate-speakers joke” camp. Any future follow-up will need to be a new post I fear … once I’ve considered if he has any new arguments … Follow-up post here: “Are There Any Limits to Free Expression?]

Progress in Dialogue Again – Helen Lewis and Jordan Peterson

Helen Lewis conducted a long interview with Jordan Peterson for GQ Magazine and a 100 minute version is up on YouTube.

The set-up is journalist “versus” controversial public person – “interrogates” them in a “dissection of masculinity” – was exploited by GQ, whatever Lewis’ own feminist agenda. Explicitly adversarial. (Lots of people commenting on the relative sound and lighting between the protagonists.) Peterson himself saw it as an attempted “take-down”. A grilling, holding the influential to account, etc.

In that sense very similar to the infamous Cathy Newman interview which I’ve written about before, but that was live, within the constraints of a 10 minute or so mainstream-media news segment. In that interview Newman got to the “you got me” aha! moment only a minute or two from the end – and as I’ve said on numerous times since, that conversation really should be taken up again and continued in long form. Newman (like Lewis) has a feminist agenda but as we see in both cases these are highly intelligent and well researched people that bring a lot more to any debate than simply being the journalist primed to ask the awkward questions. (We have plenty of idiot men like John Humphrys for that.)

The real point here is that it may start adversarial by design of the standard journalistic set-up, but the dialogue is far more intelligent than that. Peterson wants you to challenge him and hold his feet to the fire, provided the dialogue is mutual. Peterson is indeed an emotional and quick to anger in his own defense kinda person, but he knows it and is excruciatingly careful in controlling and following-up, elaborating and explaining beyond first reactions.

What we see is that the conversation does evolve into a two-way dialogue. Lewis brings a lot to it, her own intuitive and objective positions. Each challenges the other and common ground emerges.

In Peterson’s case, obviously he defends himself, but the point of doing such interviews is to expose his thinking to the challenge and to challenge others in doing so.  He is nothing if not thoughtful in considering his responses. In fact his whole agenda revolves around understanding the psychology of emotion and intellect in what knowledge and belief lies behind our actions, his own included. It’s his day job.

And it’s Lewis behaviour too, to put up the examples from her own beliefs and experience to the challenge. She’s not always right – like Peterson, she’s also an imperfect human – multiculural society vs multiculturalism, the Pepe flag story, citing PZ Myers as a credible critic(!), the need for ideology, the Dankula blasphemy case. (In the latter, nothing wrong with her position – I just think Baddiel took it to a better conclusion.) But these are deep topics individually and really only get passing air-time in what is already a long conversation. Hierarchies too … don’t get me started. More dialogue is always needed.

My point is, it was an intelligent dialogue with proper knowledge-enhancing intent – both good-natured enough to smile genuinely at each other’s responses, and recognise narrowing of differences and misunderstandings topic by topic.

It’s an excellent interview where absolutely nothing depends on demonising Peterson as some alt-right misogynist bigot. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real danger, as Lewis often alludes, is in the possibility of Peterson’s short-attention-span fandom misunderstanding him, which is of course why he is excruciatingly careful in the more provocative implications of anything he says. His sense of responsibility is clear for all to see. The comment trail below the video also attests to this danger, and Peterson several times mentions struggling with how to manage social-media interaction. First responses are defenses of their “hero”, but in my experience those that actually achieve intelligent dialogue do get to more balanced positions. Job done.

Excellent. Worth the long watch.


[Post Notes:

Interesting responses and follow-up. Now as I said, JBP is not perfect or conventional in expression of his ideas, and he’s not short on “weird” – both written and spoken – so if your aim is to pick holes, there are plenty of targets to throw rocks at.

GQ posted some short clips as teasers and others dug up older quotes and one-liners. There is a strong agenda to ridicule JBP from those supporting the feminist agenda, but the ridicule rarely addresses any of the actual argument in dialogue. Which is why I say the dialogue itself is so important. Intelligent feminism is a lot more than its stereotype.

His “all beef” diet draws a lot of “snark” – but you need to know the history and background for that exercise.

Many laughed at his old tweet (from a year of two ago) asking the direct question “Why so many of his audience are young men? I wonder why that is?”. That tweet was around the same time as the very emotional Radio5 clip that opens this recent discussion.

I did say above that “hierarchies” per se deserves unpicking along several axes – it’s a really big topic that constantly bumps up against the particular “patriarchy” debate. Many have ridiculed JBP’s use of the lobsters and planets examples. The long quote on the arrangement of celestial bodies being panned as looking like a Sokal post-modernist parody. Leaving out the complexities of why – how come? – JBP is simply highlighting that “equality” (of objective outcomes) is a human social-intellectual ideal that is not a default position in physics or biology and more primitive social arrangements. Things in general are arranged according to any number of attributes in any number of unequal arrangements. (As I say I wouldn’t necessarily call any and all of these “hierarchies”, but the error is misinterpreting presumptions about why, whilst denying any valid reasons why at all. ie it’s complicated – but it’s real – hence the need for proper dialogue beyond men = toxic-masculinity.)

The BBC Radio 5 Live JBP piece, hosted by Nihal Arthanayake is worth a listen. Respect, respect, respect, responsibility, ownership, discipline and rules-as-opportunities. It’s all there. Tim Samuels on “Man’s Hour”. Individual experience and identity vs class attributes and definition – good fences – again.

Ridicule is a right, but it comes with a responsibility to follow-up in dialogue. All life is problem-solving, male or female.]

Basic Game-Theory in Evolution

What’s the best next move in the game of life? I’m forever pointing out the evolutionary nature of all life decisions, so I thought I’d make a little post I can point at when necessary.

(If you prefer skip straight to Nicky Case’s excellent visual “Evolution of Trust Simulator” in the footnote, and come back to the words. Bottom line is ALL life-moves involve trust, and it’s scary to realise that media systems are in fact degenerately evolving trust OUT of the system. Read on.)

This is a tiny recurring example of what is fundamental about cultural evolution, which always involves information exchanges of ideas. (In fact information exchange and replication is fundamental to evolution full stop, biologically and even physically, just more obvious culturally in daily life.) One mystery is cause and effect, or blame and responsibility for consequences in political life, but again the mystery exists at all levels, even physics as I say. It’s mysterious because, despite the appearances of experience and hindsight, most causation involves some interaction and questions of which-way / two-way causation. Hard to credit at the level of physics, and easy to reject in a temporal precedence sense, but then even time is fundamentally weirder than everyday human experience.

The course of a river is constrained (caused) by its banks at the same time as the shaping of the river bank is scoured (caused) by the flow in the river. The net result is predictable in nature but not in detail. So many biological examples are cast as arms-races if competitive or exchanges of interests if collaborative. Again all species (physical, biological or cultural) are a matter of hindsight, not prediction.

At the cultural (social and intellectual) level ideas and responses continually bounce off each other. Even rationally intentioned at each step – it’s a game getting to best (or even least-worst) outcomes as discourse evolves imperfect knowledge and understanding at every expression. Even rationally intentioned, those outcomes may not converge predictably. Add in irony (and metaphor, after Hofstadter) and it’s anybody’s guess – it’s a creative game.

The example here is the irony problem:

It is now standard practice in game shows to read out news items, ads and “letters” sent in. In fact it’s been standard practice to publish individual reactions as long as media have existed, it’s just that the cycle of publish and react (and to react to and/or republish the reaction to the reaction) is so much faster and more ubiquitous these days. So is the irony in the hope or in the truth of the response or hope and intent of the reaction or … where?

It’s in all of them, it’s everywhere. I’ll wager most typos or absurd “funny” contributions are ironic from the outset. The original sender is complicit in the game where the publisher knows the contribution is ironic. The sender gets published and the publisher gets read and re-published in further media – win-win-win-win. Add in those adding their own irony when sharing their response and , you can be sure even the originator is doubling down on multiple levels of irony-but-is-it in order to make moves in the game.

I’m not even sure what “I hope it’s true” means. It’s certainly true that it is ironic, but how many levels of irony? That’s anybody’s guess – which means anybody can make the next move in the game, and there are so many immediate opportunities to make that move. The game of life.


[Post Note: Seeing the usual annual news story (yawn) about who won the world championship with which word, reminds me that Scrabble is an archetype of the process / problem. In my lifetime it’s gone from a game to test family and friends vocabulary-in-use, with the dictionary on hand as adjudication in case of disagreement, to a game of who knows the most obscure letter combinations that players know exist as words in the world’s most comprehensive dictionaries. An entirely different species of game.]

[*** Post Note ***
Very sophisticated simulation of social evolutionary game theory, even if you believe you already know the standard cases. (It’s a powerful visualisation by Nicky Case of Axelrod 1984 much referenced in Dennett and other sources.)

Many different aspects demonstrable. The significance of “trust”. Specifically “fidelity”- many rounds of (conservative) replication with only few exceptions. Also individual to individual significance, as opposed to generalised individual vs mass / class or class vs class cases. That fidelity of % miscommunication (memetic mutation) is very telling – worth playing through to the end.

Trust Simulator

(Spoiler: Our problem today isn’t just that people are losing trust, it’s that our environment [unmediated media communications anyone?] acts against the evolution of trust.)

Can be replayed with different strategies and different research aims. Sorry, lost the original Tweeted link, but I suspect must have been EES sourceThis seems like definitive demonstration of my own intuitive position. Respect and trust matter, and “social-media” is destroying it. It’s anti-social media. So, sadly now, it’s even worse. We can now not only game “the system” we can game the long-run behaviour of game-theory itself. This is REALLY SCARY.]

The Stories That Bind Humanity

Was about to post a placeholder for a piece on the need for “Religion by any other name.” I last mentioned the concept – a merging of causes in a Humanistic value-model – in response to a Rabbi Sacks talk. (And did I see a article only yesterday “destroying” Alain de Botton over his taking on board the best bits of religion?)

It arose today with the potentially explosive consequences of recognising the disparity in secular and religious “fertility behaviour”. This tweet / paper and a thread of three comments below in particular. (General gist of truth whatever the detail analysis / discourse right now.)

The nudge to actually post came from an article / interview in New Humanist presenting Alex Rosenberg’s idea that:

“We would not have survived in the Darwinian struggle on the African savannah without the theory of mind. The trouble is it long ago outlived its usefulness.”

“The trouble is that this sort of history – without stories – uses theories, models, equations, data, in short science. And since we were selected for preferring stories to science, we’ll keep on demanding [story-based] history as our preferred mode of understanding, greatly to our cost, I fear.

Completely the opposite of any truth! Almost impossible to approach directly as a problem with a solution, but to recognise as a game-theoretic model of teleological evolution. And a bio-cultural evolutionary cycle at that too! Needs a lot of unpicking.

[And I see it was Rosenberg published that “defence of scientism” that was slammed by Wieseltier and counter-defended by Pinker(?) and other New Atheist types. Jeez!]

[And what was that about AI being inhuman yesterday – Doh!]

[Placeholder only.]

Causation in Science

Expensive first release in hardback, so I will need some justification to buy, but clearly an important topic to me. Causation remains much weirder than everyday common sense. I am not aware of either author or any previous work, so the ” … in science, and the methods of scientific discovery” subtitle scared me a little, that it might be a bit scientistic – reductive and logical-positive.

This blurb, (courtesy of Amazon) …

“[They] propose nine new norms of scientific discovery. A number of existing methodological and philosophical orthodoxies are challenged as they argue that progress in science is being held back by an overly simplistic philosophy of causation.”

… starts with the subtitled focus on scientific methodology and orthodoxy, but does indeed give hope in the final clause:

progress in science is being held back
by an overly simplistic philosophy of causation

This really is a philosophical problem, as close to my agenda as I could expect. Their previous work is even more hopeful:

Rani Lill Anjum is Researcher in Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Applied Philosophy of Science (CAPS) at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). She was postdoctoral fellow at the universities of Tromsø and Nottingham.  At NMBU, she then led the Causation in Science research project. She currently leads the research project Causation, Complexity and Evidence in Health Sciences (CauseHealth), funded by the Research Council of Norway (NFR). She has co-written with Stephen Mumford:

Getting Causes from Powers (2011)

Causation: A Very Short Introduction (2013) 

What Tends to Be: the Philosophy of Dispositional Modality (2018)

Stephen Mumford is Professor of Metaphysics in the Department of Philosophy at Durham University as well as Professor II at Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). In addition to co-author of the above, he has written:

Dispositions (1998),

Russell on Metaphysics (2003),

Laws in Nature (2004)

Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics and Emotion (2011)

Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction (2012)

Glimpse of Light (2017) 

The Norwegian connection is particularly interesting to me, one reinforcement of my fear of an overly logical focus but also, more recently, some new positive connections. The sporting connection too – I often use sporting examples as a kind of “morality play” on the evolution of ethical rules through “gaming the system” – Rules for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools, etc. Law-like behaviour is evolved, like anything else. If nothing else, I need to do some reading of their existing works methinks.


[Post Note: I see now, the Durham Uni connection, I must have come across Mumford before. Followed by Anthony Gotlieb. And a Blades fan! I need to pay more attention.]

[Post Note: Intrigued by Mumford as the editor of the “Russell on Metaphysics” collection by Routledge, series editor Anthony Grayling. As a fan of the post-Tractatus Wittgenstein, I hold Russell-the-logician (hero of present day humanism and rationalism) as a kind of evil demon behind the persistence of the logical-positivism of analytic philosophy in the scientism and ever increasing simplistication (eg polarisation) of everyday discourse. Imagine my surprise, then:

Russell discussed many things, including politics, religion and ethics. He was, however, one of the greatest analytic philosophers of the twentieth century and this book includes some of the writings for which he deserves this status. Some of the ideas Russell discusses here may be difficult,  therefore. But Russell thought that in almost all areas of philosophy, clarity and simplicity was possible and that even very difficult ideas could be  stripped down to their easily grasped essentials.

He successfully demonstrates this in these papers […] it is the work of a prominent and important philosopher engaged in metaphysical study. […] To some who know a little of Russell’s philosophy, it might seem strange to speak of him being engaged in metaphysics. He is often depicted as standing squarely in the empiricist tradition that had, on the whole, rejected metaphysics […] If this book has but one aim, it is to relieve its readers of that misconception.

Russell was a metaphysician.

Still holds this clarification-by-simplification (by a logician) fear for me, so I shall be intrigued to see what subtlety I find here.]

A Rose By Any Other Name

The first half of The Bard’s quote is an adage I use frequently – in thousands of posts over two decades. The point of Juliet’s words lies in the second half. Umberto Eco wrote a whole philosophical novel riffing on it.

“A rose by any other name …
… would smell as sweet.”

One word – one name for a thing – is as good as another once you’re experiencing the real thing.

I’ve written at length on “Identity Politics”, that naming things for “tribal” reasons – even unconscious ones – is an unhealthy aspect of discourse (even scientific discourse – climate change anyone?) and one good reason some words are controlled for Political Correctness in some contexts. But it’s important to understand how that’s different from language fascism, prescribing and proscribing word-use in general – banning and demanding, through expectation and reaction if not by formal ruling. Rules are for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools anyway.

In fact this issue is a technical ontological error that infects epistemology. We refer to individuals (people and things) using the names of their classes all the time. But it’s at our peril if we use that class naming to suggest identity and/or definition of the individual. In a world where linguistic symbols confer massive advantage to promulgating information – as opposed to the individual contact of “knowing biblically” – we have little choice but to use words or other portable metaphorical representations of them. Catch-22 – We must use them but beware their limitations in becoming too attached to them individually.

I often defend Wittgenstein from those who take too narrow and reductive a view of his early phase Tractatus work. Inferring that he believed the logical positive objectivity of his austere aphorisms with their neat logical joins of thus and therefore somehow described all that could be said about the world. Kinda – “I’ve completed the job, if you want more, go whistle!” It was simply all that could be said with that world view. His later work showed he understood the need to make the altogether more mystical linguistic turn.

I felt that same defensive emotion this morning, reading Giles Fraser posting his memories of Mary Midgley who died a couple of days ago. (I’ve also defended Midgley who despite her sharp and subtle understanding wasn’t quite up to the “banter” of mediated conference dialogue when I last saw her.) Anyway, fascinating because I’ve come to treat Giles as a professional contrarian who’s wheeled out, or dives in, to every public moral debate, without ever appearing to hold a single intelligible view IMHO. To the point I’ve given up attempting any dialogue. Imagine my surprise to find he not only benefitted from Mary Midgley in his philosophical (and theological and pastoral) education but that he seems to genuinely appreciate the fact. Touching. Hope for the old polemicist yet.

His only black mark was that having appreciated the philosophical subtlety of Midgley, he simply dismissed Wittgenstein as the opposite archetype – standing for reductive objectivity – whereas, he absolutely detested and ridiculed the school that adopted him.

Words matter not because of which words – in which disembodied logical and grammatical order – but because of “how we” use them in the problem-solving game we (universal constructors) call life.


[Post Note: Holding Stub – Part of a dialogue with David Harding on choice of words, but coincidentally also relevant to his post of Sophistry. I’m defending Rhetoric, more than Sophistry. The former is necessary – see above – the latter is deliberately mis-leading, even if Machiavellian intent is overall positive. All more evidence for “the Wittgensteinian word game.]

Zen and the Art of Philosophy

A review of:

“How The World Thinks
– A Global History of Philosophy”
by Julian Baggini

All my reviews are done in the context of my own philosophical journey and often, like this one, a review done very early on in the reading, so that my own prejudices are laid bare for later analysis and a later review if I sense I learned something new worth sharing. And since “nothing new under the sun” – a perennial philosophy – is a recurring adage of my own, success in this may boil down to a pithy restatement – or aphoristic restatements – of long established wisdom for current and future times.

“Intriguing and illuminating”, as a description of what the book is, the review by Simon Blackburn in the Literary Review says it well enough. Baggini is filling a hole in his, and many a western philosopher’s, grounding by exploring in a descriptive, historical and comparative way a range of Asian and African philosophical traditions. He’s doing so in a laudably naive way by identifying this gap in the current state of his own education. And he’s proceeding to explore by reading and interviewing and by physically travelling to conferences of these non-western schools of thought. The content is therefore as substantial as that recent research exercise, which is naturally pretty thin. As I say, that naivety laid bare is laudable since he is claiming little more than a prerequisite first step towards a mere introduction to the topics.

The point, of course, is to cultivate sufficient interest in, and recognition of the significance of, the parallels and differences between alternatives to western received wisdom when it comes to ways of looking at the world. In that, I believe, he succeeds.

And for me, he also succeeds in some interesting new summary statements of what it is about non-western world-views he wants to bring to our attention. Which is good because, if nothing else, Baggini has his own way of engaging with”intellectual and spiritual generosity” which is essential “for our fractious and dangerously divided era” as Richard Holloway’s cover-blurb comment attests.

All those people out there who believe real world progress depends on pursuing critical debate to its natural conclusions between objectively well defined options or, god forbid, between partisan identity-politics positions, would do well to savour Baggini’s more generous style.

Personally, as someone who came into philosophy late in life via Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and as someone who only noticed any need for philosophy at all after decades of perceiving an ineffable incompleteness – something’s missing that I can’t put into words – in the received wisdoms of everyday western techno-socio-economic business life, I don’t need the gap pointed out. The gap is where I started. I do however appreciate Baggini’s summary restatements of lessons learned.

He quite comfortably uses Karl Jasper’s idea that classic traditions of philosophy arose independently in parallel in Greece, India and China in the 500 years or so up to around 300 BCE, the so-called “Axial Age”. I say comfortable because, as I learned from hearing reaction to the same concept used by Rebecca Goldstein (an influence Baggini and I both share), it’s controversial to reduce so much complex history to a single idea. But then as Baggini points out the need to generalise common aspects whilst taking account significant differences is a fundamental philosophical – human – trick in any tradition. That’s material for a whole text by itself.

Having started there, not surprisingly the Indian and Chinese classics behind the subsequent histories of eastern philosophies and religions are a focus of the work. Despite a richly documented heritage, both place much lesser emphasis on words – spoken or written – than the western tradition. With even less documented traditions, African references are of course much more sparse, and so far as I can see there is no reference to any native American traditions, north or south.

This is part of what I call the Catch-22 of philosophy. Thanks to Gutenberg, not to mention modern electronic and social media, any ideas that can be – and are – represented in symbolic language, have a natural memetic advantage in their spread and adoption over those that are nevertheless lived by all humans around the world. That advantage says nothing about how good the world-view is, simply that it is easy to represent accurately, which is only fine if you believe transportable linguistic representation is the most valuable measure of a philosophy. Catch-22 as I say, or Procrustes bed if you prefer.

Anyway, Baggini notes that before he (and Pirsig), plenty of western philosophers have noted and grappled with this. It takes the nuanced readings of Spinoza, Kant and Wittgenstein to appreciate workable ways of fitting the omission of eastern ideas to western thinking to create any truly integrated global world-view. I say integrated because holding onto the idea some single monolithic world-view – the one true metaphysics – might result, is part of the problem.

Baggini obviously chooses the sources he references and anyone reading could choose their own preferred alternative sources of similar if not much the same content. But, beyond critical debate on exactly what P meant when they wrote X and whether that might be true or not according to which arguments, the real value here is in identifying the ongoing significance of the classic east-west gap to a global philosophy for modern life. Baggini’s specific contribution – beyond his generous and readable style – has to be the neat taxonomy of the subject matter in his (mostly) one word choices of chapter headings; Insight, Logic, Tradition, Time, Unity, Self, Harmony and Virtue; to name just a few examples.