Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Originality in philosophy

Yesterday, I was sitting outside a cafe chatting to a couple of fellow philosophers and we got to discussing the extent to which philosophers build upon the work of others. Particularly, we talked about how students’ expectations of the requirement for originality are simply too demanding and unrealistic. Often, students think that to be original they must say something completely new when the reality is that good, original scholarship is more likely to be taking another philosopher’s work in a new direction, developing a thought, or drawing together concepts which have previously been considered apart. For example, my work on defending non-human animals applies concepts of other-defence to the idea of animal rights – each is a familiar topic, but few people have tied the two literatures together. In the course of our chat, I remarked that whenever I think I’ve had an original idea I later discover that some long dead Greek had it well before I ever did – curse those Greeks and their philosophical brilliance.

I still had this conversation in mind today whilst re-reading Plato’s Protagoras in a quiet moment between papers (I’m presently in Zurich for the Society for Applied Philosophy’s annual conference). Reading Protagoras I was delighted to find that the ancient Greeks experienced the same sorts of familiar academic occurances as we do. One of my pet hates is when a philosophical discussion moves from being an argument about an idea to an argument about whether the originator of the idea meant this, that, or the other. I went to one seminar where a discussion on the Kantian notion of respect disintegrated as scholars argued over the meaning implied by punctuation in a Kantian text, argued over which translation they should use, and then lapsed into German, took out German dictionaries, and squabbled over contested intentions of meaning. The original normative argument was abandoned. I’m not saying that such discussion doesn’t have it’s place, or that it’s always uninteresting, but I’m sure many others will have experienced similar frustrations. So, I couldn’t help smiling when I read the following by Plato:

‘…  a company like this of ours, and men such as we profess to be, do not require the help of another’s voice, or of the poets whom you cannot interrogate about meaning of what they are saying; people who cite them declaring, some that the poet has meaning, and others that he has another, and the point which is in dispute can never be decided. This sort of entertainment they decline, and prefer to talk with one another, and put one another to the proof in conversation. And these are the models which I desire that you and I should imitate. Leaving the poets, and keeping to ourselves, let us try the mettle of one another and make proof of the truth in conversation.’

Truly, like this quote, there is nothing new under the sun.


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What politics can learn from the academic virtues

One of the (many) things I and many others find off-putting about mainstream political discourse is the horrible polarising language that political activists use to dehumanise their opponents. In politics, one’s own team acts with good intentions and right reasons, and everyone else is wicked and irrational. Thus, we see Conservatives described as ‘wicked Tories’; they’re labelled ‘toffs’ who only act to benefit themselves and their friends whilst punishing the poor, whom they hate. Meanwhile, Labour are said to be engaged in a vicious class war grounded in the politics of envy. Now, every myth has an element of truth to it, and those caricatures no doubt resonate because there are genuinely awful people in politics (I’ve met plenty), but that doesn’t mean we should be content that this is how debate is carried out – we, the people, deserve better.

One place politicians might learn from is academia. As academics we are taught to argue in certain ways, and to exemplify certain virtues.

  • Academic practice is part of a pursuit of truth, whereas all too often political practice is in pursuit of victory. To pursue truth requires both wisdom and the courage to do what is right rather than what is popular or received.

  • Where political discourse often relies upon polemic and sophistry, the academic should exhibit both temperance and prudence in providing good reasons for belief. In politics, too often the aim is simply to win an argument by fair means or foul. The academic seeks to persuade by force of reason rather than rhetoric and must be prepared to abandon conclusions shown to be false.

  • The academic is taught to be charitable to opponents – to argue against the most charitable interpretation of an argument. In this way, our arguments are stronger, and avoid the fallacy of setting up a straw man to attack, something politicians do all too readily.

  • Academic practice; that of peer review, presentation, and challenge, requires academics to be willing to accept the possibility that their arguments may be flawed and to revise or abandon them accordingly. One might think of this as requiring the virtue of humility.

Were politicians prepared to adopt some of these academic virtues, I can’t help but feel that our politics would be a whole lot healthier. Mind you, it might also be nice if more academics adopted them too.

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On achieving one’s potential

Earlier today I caught a snippet of a news story about global hunger. One of those being interviewed said something like ‘malnourishment prevents children from achieving their potential.’ I realised then that the idea of ‘achieving one’s potential’ is one I’ve often heard and never reflected upon. Reflection proved interesting.

Having potential means having the latent capacity to achieve something. The claim above implies that children have a capacity to achieve something and that malnourishment prevents them from doing so. But, what exactly is that potential for? Do we really have such a capacity?

In one sense, we must have some sort of potential: given that we have finite lives then it must therefore be true that there are finite amount amount of things we can achieve. So, our potential could be a measure of all the things that it’s possible for us to do in our finite lives. But that isn’t satisfactory; when we talk about someone’s potential there is a normative judgement about what it’s worthwhile to achieve. When we speak with sadness about a failure to meet one’s potential, we don’t mean someone’s potential to count as many blades of grass in their finite existence as is humanly possible, and nor do we mean someone’s potential to kill as many people or steal as many things as is possible. Someone’s potential, in ordinary sense, is therefore connected with living the good life or doing something worthwhile. Alternatively, potential could be connected with something more abstract: with the ability to develop an attribute or capability such as rationality to its maximum. There are a number of interesting areas to contemplate that begin to appear at this point – here are some that I’ve thought of, you may have more:

1) A potential must measure what it’s possible to achieve. The claim about malnourishment only makes sense if it means that malnourishment prevents children from achieving the potential they otherwise would have had were they not malnourished. But, how do we know what someone might ordinarily achieve? What we might be able to do is such a horrifically complex and unknowable affair that it’s difficult to make any meaningful judgements about what we might be able to do. Is it even meaningful to think of potential in the ideal and so disregard all that reduces it?

Thinking this way might also require us to rank the desirability of any number of potential goals we could achieve and that’s far from easy. This problem only becomes readily solvable if we think the value of all things can be measured in terms of a single value, such as happiness or pleasure. If, however, we’re pluralists about value then we may think some values are incommensurate. Is love more valuable than friendship or health? If we’re pluralists about value then we could escape this problem by conceiving of potential as the capacity to achieve any number of valuable goods. However, if we do think some goods can be determined to be better than others in some way, then it would be strange to conceive of potential as the capacity to achieve the less valuable goals rather than the more valuable ones.

2) There’s a further problem with thinking of potential in these normative terms and it’s connected with desires and preferences. If someone with the potential to be a great mathematician decides to become a mediocre painter then should we regard this a bad thing? If not, it might be because free choice is more valuable than meeting potential. But what about in the really difficult cases: imagine someone with the potential to cure AIDS who decides to write trashy romance books instead. Here we’re straying into Aristotelian territory and the idea that we all have an end or purpose (a telos) and we live a bad life if we do not achieve it. If we do have such a telos then perhaps the potential curer of AIDs can be said to have lived a bad life irrespective of whether they achieved what they wanted.  Thus, the claim about malnourishment becomes a perfectionist claim that children are prevented from living good lives as judged from objective standpoint not necessarily connected with their individual rationally chosen goals. At this point, *everything* that prevents someone from living a maximally good life in the sense above becomes a bad thing to some degree.

The discussion so far pushes us towards thinking that there is some objective notion of a good life either for all people or for each individual.

And here’s a third thought: if things that prevent us from reaching our potential are bad things, then achieving potential is a good thing. And if achieving potential is a good thing, it’s likely that greater potential is also better than lesser potential. If that’s the case, then things that increase our potential are good. Potential isn’t entirely in our own hands and isn’t fixed at birth – external factors such as teaching, genetic manipulation, parenting etc. can all increase our potential. This makes what we have the potential to achieve open-ended. Might we have to think of a lack of genetic engineering as preventing someone from reaching their potential too?

Anyway, I realise that all of the above is rather rambly and unstructured, and that I’m just splurging out stream of consciousness without having looked at the literature. I probably look really stupid and ignorant to anyone who has properly thought about and researched this stuff. I’ve probably also made a whole slew of errors in reasoning too. So, I’m going to wrap up before I compound my folly with the claim that what people mean when they express sadness or anger at someone’s failure to reach their potential is probably not that they’re prevented from living an objectively maximally good life. Rather, what I think people usually mean when they say someone is prevented from reaching their potential is either a) that a person’s potential to live a good life (whatever that is) is reduced and that this is a bad thing, or, b) that the person is  suffering and suffering is bad. I suspect that b) is more likely. I’m going to be more careful to say what I actually mean in future, and I’m also going to donate something to help combat world hunger, you should too!


On writing essay introductions

I’ve just spent a week endlessly marking exam scripts and this has prompted me to write something about how to approach philosophy/political theory essay introductions.

The vast majority of undergraduate essays I have seen either skip an introduction altogether or, more commonly, look something like this:

Philosophers have disagreed about whether theory X is a good theory for n period of time. In this essay I will consider theory X. I will examine some arguments in favour of X before looking at some arguments against X.

Please, if you are writing an essay, do not begin like that! I’m beginning to get cramps in my hand from writing the same comment alongside every introduction I read (perhaps I should buy a stamp?). Whilst the quality of your introduction will not make a huge difference to your overall mark it does a) provide a valuable first impression, and b) help you organise your own thoughts. So, how should you approach the introduction? Here’s what your introduction should do:

  • Lay out your key claims.
  • Tell the reader what reasons you plan to give in support of your conclusion.
  • Outline any reasons against your conclusions and say how you will overcome them.
  • Define any key terms.
  • Signpost to the reader how your essay will be structured.

Note, these rules are of course there to be broken, but it’s better to wait until you’re a good writer before you start doing so. When you define your terms, it’s OK to do so briefly in the intro and then give a fuller definition later. Also, avoid making the intro a long list of such definitions. The most important thing you can do is to say what your claims are and what premises they rest upon.

Once you’ve introduced your essay, use the main body of your essay to show that the reasons you give in support of your conclusion are a) true or likely to be true, and b) lead logically to your conclusion (i.e., that if the premises are true, then so must the conclusion be).

Here are a couple of examples:

 Q. Are Jaffa Cakes better described as cakes or biscuits?

A. In this essay I will show that Jaffa Cakes are better described as cakes than they are biscuits. A biscuit is a small baked product, either savoury or sweet, whereas a cake is a bread-like, sweet, baked dessert. In the first part of my essay I will offer fuller conceptualisations of the terms cake and biscuit, before moving on to demonstrate that the physical characteristics of Jaffa Cakes mean that they are most properly conceived of as cakes. The latter part of my essay will be devoted to addressing two common objections to the claim that Jaffa Cakes are cakes. These objections are: first, that Jaffa Cakes are too small to be cakes, and second, that Jaffa Cakes are more commonly eaten like biscuits than they are cakes. In response to the first objection, I will demonstrate that a particular size range is not a necessary condition for correct ascription of the term cake, and in reply to the second objection, I will show that although desserts usually conclude a meal, it is not necessary that they always do so. Finally, before concluding, I will consider the claim that biscuits are a form of cake, meaning that Jaffa Cakes can correctly be called either cake or biscuit. Although I concede that all biscuits are cakes, I argue in turn that it does not follow that all cakes are therefore biscuits.

 Q. Is Manchester United a better football team than Manchester City?

A. In this essay I defend the claim that Manchester City is a better team than Manchester United. I begin defining what makes a football team good, focussing on: team spirit; trophies won; recent and current league form; financial stability; quality of strip; player haircuts and tattoos; managerial tactics; and who has the best supporters and chants. I argue that Manchester City is a better team because a) its supporter chants are better, and b) it is a richer club. Further, I claim that the difference between United and City is negligible in most of the other categories listed above. In response to the claim that current league form and number of trophies should be weighted more heavily than haircuts and bank-balance, I will respond by claiming ‘Who are ya? who are ya?’. I conclude with a two-fingered salute.

So, to conclude, don’t just tell the reader that you will do X, make sure that you also tell them how you will do X. Doing so will enable the reader to follow your argument more easily and will force you to clearly structure your essay, it will also save me from marking-induced insanity.