Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Reduction or Connection?

I should really be writing a book review right now, but I need a break. Who would have thought this project would turn into a new form of work avoidance? I need to get out more! Anyway, so far Strawson has provided the most enjoyable read, so I’m going back to read Chapter 2 of Analysis and Metaphysics today.

Strawson’s initial project in this chapter is to describe how we can construct complex and interesting concepts out of simple ideas or understand complex concepts by reducing them to their simplest elements and locating the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions of the correct application of the concept’.i

Now I happen to love this kind of philosophical investigation – whilst writing my PhD I often found myself stopping mid sentence to consider what I actually meant by the term I was using. In fact I spent several months during my first year just trying to build a better conception of the concept of cruelty and find necessary and sufficient conditions for it; it turned out to be pretty damned difficult. As a further aside – the paper that came out of that thinking it has produced some hilariously varied reviews from the deliberately offensive, to the extremely complimentary, gaining me a valuable insight into the peer review process. Sometimes I feel like a massive chunk of my philosophical practice is devoted to mastering language, which is awesome because understanding, communication, and expression are pretty dammed central to our shared existence and hugely enriching to boot.

Strawson goes beyond this fairly simple method to extend the project of conceptual analysis to include an exploration of the connections between items and systems. One reason to use this connective model is that reducing concepts to atomistic elements is often implausible because sometimes (or perhaps always) ideas simply cannot be understood in isolation (Strawson uses the example of trying to understand knowledge without reference to sense perception). Indeed, can any concept be reduced to components that do not themselves rely upon further concepts that themselves require analysis? Knowing that this is likely to occur when seeking necessary and sufficient conditions for a concept can make analysis quite a daunting prospect – you never know where conceptual analysis will lead you (of course, this is also a little exciting so long as you’re not pressed for time).

There’s lots more to this chapter, but I can hear a child stirring in his bed upstairs, so I’m going to leave this post here.

iP. F. Strawson, Analysis and metaphysics: an introduction to philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1992), 18.


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Transcendental Ethics

Since the last chapter was so interesting, I’ve decided to delve straight into chapter 2 of the Routledge Companion. This one’s by Stephen Clark, who has written some excellent scholarly work on animal rights and retired a couple of years ago. Sometimes it seems like Stephen contributes almost all of the entries on the Philos-L philosophy mailing list – he’s provides a great service to the philosophy community.

Stephen’s chapter is on Ethical Thought in India – an ambitious thing to attempt in so small a space. Although very interesting, the first section, which is largely concerned with religious practices relating to purity, and an attendant caste system, doesn’t contain much that I can relate to familiar ethical practice. Religious views on right and wrong don’t interest me in anything other than a sociological sense.

The second section of the chapter deals with what Stephen identifies as ‘four broad human goals’ common to Indian doctrine: ‘sensual pleasure, public success, morality – and “freedom” ‘1 Unfortunately, it’s not clear where these goals are supposed to arise from – I get the impression that they are simply prescriptive rules of Hinduism. In fact, pretty much all of the ethical practice described appears to have faith as its foundation.

Call me a narrow-minded secular atheist, but if you tell me the reason we should all Φ is ‘magic’ then I’m going to lose interest sharpish. In ‘The Idea of Equality’ Bernard Williams gave short shrift to the Kantian idea that transcendental characteristics should form the basis of moral judgements, i.e. characteristics that people are assumed to have and not in virtue of any empirical reality – Kant thought we should respect humans as rational beings regardless of whether any particular human is actually rational. Similarly, I found little to hold my attention in any moral or ethical sense in this chapter, although it did provide interesting insights.


Virtue comes from punishment!

Having been a little bored by Searle’s deliberate exclusion of ethics in my last reading, I’ve tonight opened The Routledge Companion to Ethics as an antidote.

This one’s edited by John Skorpuski, who I’ve had the pleasure to meet a couple of times, and share a pint with – so it gets bonus points (although he can be a bit of a fearsomely prickly chap if he disagrees with you).

I’m typing this as a read (hurrah for ebooks), and I’m quote excited to see the book begin with a chapter on ethical thought in China. I’ve had a passing interest in philosophical Daoism for many years, so I’m looking forward to this already.

Well – that was fascinating. This sort of piece brings home how interesting putting ideas into philosophical context can be. Yang Xiao highlights the importance of the surrounding conditions of extraordinary levels of violence to the formation of early Chinese philosophy – reminding me of the upheavals of the Reformation that helped birth modern democratic liberalism. Just as the likes of Laozi, Confucius and others sought ‘peace,order and stability’ in a violent world, so too the progenitors of liberalism sought peace and toleration.

I’m not going to try to reproduce the content – it’s simply too rich to do justice to, but Confucianism comes across as a political theory of perfectionist virtue ethics, and Mohism as a cosmopolitan version of Confucianism.

Meanwhile, Legalism as a kind of terrifying political realism/rational egoism with an unhealthy obsession with punishment:

“Punishment produces force; force produces strength; strength produces awe; awe produces virtue. [Therefore], virtue comes from punishment” (Book of Lord Shang 210).

Thankfully, the rather scary Legalist philosophy is balanced by the gentleness of Doaism (although I know from my own readings that there’s a bit of a tendency to veer off into some pretty weird mysticism at times). In fact – if you haven’t before, stop reading this and go read the Dao De Ching now – it’s beautiful (and undoubtedly online somewhere – go Google).

And that me finished – a chapter I really enjoyed. Back to Strawson next time, or shall I select at random?

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Hows and Whys

I’m going to start this entry with a bit of back-story to help explain my next reading – which is from The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy.

A few years ago, having failed my first attempt at a degree (four years of English and Electronic Media netted me a Diploma in Combined Studies), I was living in the south of England, unable to work due to a bad injury, while my wife completed her MA. A combination of boredom and a growing interest in politics led to me attending a series of open lectures run by the politics department of Portsmouth University. Before long I’d signed up to study for a politics degree at the Open University and developed a passion for learning that remains with me today (needless to say, I did rather better at my second attempt at a degree).

The funny thing is that the more I’ve studied politics, the more I’ve come to regret no starting with philosophy. I began with politics because I wanted to understand how and why things are as they are, now I find myself more interested in the question of how and why things should be. These are questions for political and moral philosophy rather than the kind of politics I studied. Unfortunately, my route through education has left lots of gaps in my knowledge that I’m unhappy about – I’m hoping that my reading selections will fill those gaps and make me a more rounded thinker at the same time.

The first section in The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy is by John Searle and focusses on developments in late 20th Century Anglo-American philosophy. I am a little worried that, having just read Strawson’s piece in analytic philosophy (which is what Searle focusses on), I’ll be going over the same ground again. Fortunately, Searle takes a different approach and runs through historical developments (centred on the States) in philosophy. Searle acknowledges the debt owed to European analytic philosophy, before declaring America to be currently leading the world (a claim for which he provides no evidence). We are treated to discussions on Wittgenstein, Austin, Quine, and Kuhn – all very interesting stuff – before moving on to logical positivism and then more recent rejections of reductionist approaches. All though this is all pretty interesting material Searle starts to loose me after this – there’s a lot of space devoted to Searle’s particular interest in theory of mind, computing, and theory of language.

The deliberate omission of logic and particularly ethics had a lot to do with the boredom that crept up on me at the end. Still – the project’s definitely proving valuable and stimulating already. Picking a time when I have a couple of tight deadlines for book and paper reviews, a journal to edit, and a stack-load of exams to mark, to start a reading and blogging project was probably not the best idea however. May have to scale back my ambitions in the short term and stick to one reading per week.

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First Steps…

For my first reading I’ve selected the preface and Chapter 1 of Peter Strawson’s Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy. It seems appropriate to begin my journey by getting to know my own approach to philosophy a little better.

The stated aim of the book is to provide an introduction to analytic philosophy. In Chapter 1, ‘Analytical Philosophy: Two Analogies’, Strawson sets out, fittingly enough, to conceptualise analytical philosophy using two analogies.

The two analogies referred to are of the philosopher as ‘a kind of therapist’, and the philosopher as grammarian.

The philosopher as therapist (a conception he links with Wittgenstein) seeks to apply philosophical methods to cure confusion and replace muddled thinking with clarity.1

This second analogy proceeds from the observation that natural speakers of a language can quite capably master that language without being able to list and explain the formal rules of that language. This is the difference between implicit and explicit mastery. One can learn how to work within the rules without being able to say what they are. The philosopher as grammarian ‘labours to produce a systemic account of the general conceptual structure of which our daily practice shows us to have a tacit and unconscious mastery’.2

Later, Strawson illustrates how the same observations may also be made of users of specialist, technical forms of language. Thus, the ‘historian may produce brilliant historical explanations without being able to say, in general, what counts as a historical explanation…a mathematician may discover and prove new mathematical truths without being able to say what are the distinctive characteristics of mathematical truth or of mathematical proof’.3 These facts create the space for philosophical approaches to disciplines such as mathematics, history, and so forth.

Strawson’s writing is engaging – I enjoyed reading the chapter. Thanks to him, I’m left hopeful that my exercise in philosophical thrift and exploration will prove a more pleasure than chore.

  1. P. F. Strawson, Analysis and metaphysics: an introduction to philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1992), 2–4.
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. Ibid., 13.

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Here we go, go, go…on an adventure,

Like, I suspect, many, I have a growing collection of reference books that I have only dipped into to address one or two narrow aspects of my research. No doubt such wastefulness constitutes a vice of some sort (I could always consult one of my books to find out). In lieu of any defined New Year’s resolution I propose to set out on a philosophical adventure. I have thus tasked myself with reading and reflecting upon two-three sections of just three of these unexplored books every week until I have finished them.

I’ve chosen The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, The Routledge Companion to Ethics, and Strawson’s Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy. I’m hoping this choice, however dry sounding, will broaden my knowledge, prove interesting, and be broadly useful to my existing research.