Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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If it moves, hit it with metaphysics!

So, metaphysics then, with an extra section on time for added confusion. Yesterday I read a chapter by Strawson on logic, epistemology, and ontology (with a focus on ontology) – I can’t say I gained much more than a tentative grasp of what was being said, I think more background knowledge than I possesses was assumed. I figure the best way to deal with my confusion is to hit it repeatedly with some metaphysics until comprehension dawns. Thus, my reward for doing teaching prep (topic this week is deontology) was to read Simon Blackburn on metaphysics.

The meaning of metaphysics is contended, but I understand it to be concerned with reality and existence – what are the general features of the world and how do we come to know and understand them? Some of the most interesting metaphysical questions are how we are to understand the nature of human beings and their relationships both with other beings, and with each other.

Metaphysical enquiry can help us resolve the tension between the ideas that on the the one hand we have free will, yet on the other we are governed by deterministic laws of nature (there’s still a way to go in answering that one for good). And, it can help us come to understand puzzles such as how the mind and the body relate to one another.

Obviously, it’s going to take more than a couple of readings to make me a metaphysician, but I’m going to keep plugging at it until I at least feel more than vaguely conversant in the subject. Next stop – one of the excellent podcasts from Philosophy Bites.


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Williams and truthful imagination

Teaching preparation and the increasingly urgent need to find a job now that I’m nearing the end of my PhD have been sucking up a lot of my time lately, but I’m determined to keep this reading project going nevertheless. Today, I’ve been reading Bernard William’s essay ‘Contemporary Philosophy: A Second Look’ from the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy. I’ve promised myself the treat (I need to get out more) of reading his essay ‘Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline’, but only when I’ve completed some more of my scheduled readings, so this is my substitute.

In his essay, Williams attacks the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy *, claiming that these labels are misleading, not least because contemporary western philosophy is not divided up by geographical areas.

When philosophers in the continental tradition speak of their research to me, I tend to find myself rapidly becoming lost and confused. Often, it sounds like they are engaging more in prose and language play, and grasping at some ephemeral feeling of profundity, rather than getting on with the serious business of uncovering truth or making things clearer. Sometimes I’m left wondering whether there’s some elaborate joke being played – wondering if continental philosophy is like a complex philosophical game of Mornington Crescent. If you spend a lot of time with students of analytic philosophy you will almost certainly hear more than occasional contemptuous remark being made about continental philosophy (I’ve made one or two of them myself to be honest). And if you look on the Web you’ll discover sites like these: and (read the blurb at the bottom of that page), and essays like Martha Nussbaum’s stinging attack on Judith Butler: William’s short discussion is a reminder to be wary of being overly dismissive. His message is that analytic philosophers should concentrate on what’s good about their tradition – such as ‘unfanatical truthfulness’ – but also draw more upon the imagination. Sober truthfulness is less powerful than truthfulness that sparks the imagination.

Williams goes on, in the proceeding section, to address questions of meta-ethics, such as whether we can make objective moral statements. He follows this up with a discussion on ethical theory – that is the practice of placing a moral outlook into some kind of theoretical structure – and he briefly discusses the familiar basic types of theories: consequentialist, virtue based, and deontological/rights based. Williams finishes with a section connecting morality, analytical philosophy, and politics together. There’s a short discussion of liberal contractualism (that is grounding political authority and obligations in some form of imagined contract) and some of its criticisms of it. This is the point where philosophy starts to have bite for me – it’s why I do it. The questions about facts and values are enormously interesting and profound, but it’s how we move from the meta-ethical questions to fitting them into a political theory that really fires me up, so I really enjoyed reading this bit.

As I come to the end of William’s essay I find myself reflecting on just how much he’s managed to convey in so few pages. Reading work of such clarity and expressive power is a joy that leaves one humbled and more than a little jealous. I’m also left thinking about imagination – a faculty that I’ve believed for some time is absolutely central to moral action. Maybe I’ll forgo some academic reading until I’ve read a good novel – some Coatzee perhaps.

*Yes, before you start jumping up and down in outrage, I know that’s a Wikipedia link. I confess that I quite like Wikipedia and I happen to admit that I think it’s a perfectly good place to get a broad overview of a topic, and a starting point for inquiry, so long as you’re a reasonably informed and discerning reader.

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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.