Thursday 31 January 2013


Jaana writes:
In the spirit of approaching ski season, the film group congregated around Touching the Void, a re-enactment of a mountaineering exploit almost gone bad. 

Absolute trust is a prerequisite for surviving in the hostile conditions - then, what to do when the two alternatives are to cut the rope, leaving your possibly-already-dead partner behind, or stay put, and slowly perish together with him? The mountaineering code is ice clear: never leave your buddy.
We know that in the end, against all odds, both survived, making this an uplifting story in mind over matter. 

The man with a broken leg came back to tell his story, and emphasise that he didn't blame his partner. The mountaineering community was not as understanding. Would the moral judgement have been different, had the abandoned party died, or had never been found?
When the code of honour calls for self-sacrifce, to which point should we obey?

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Economics Courses

The Economic Crisis in Europe
 – Or is it only an economic crisis? Throughout the course, we will consider the diverse situations of European nations, the issues of political integration, the single currency, sovereign debts, and why austerity won’t work. What may well be at stake is a social model, a lifestyle, a civilisation, that are uniquely European.
A 10-week course at City Lit, every Wednesday, 10am -12:00, from 9 January.

On Poverty – Its persistence shames policy makers and embarrasses economists. The course will address three fundamental notions: the nature of poverty (economical, social, spiritual); why it still exists; how to make it history. Issues of governance, inequality and sustainability, will generate vibrant discussions. We will examine a range of short texts drawing on both philosophy and economics, from the Bible and Koran to Martha Nussbaum, Marx, Rawls, Peter Singer and Amartya Sen. If you know little about economics, discussing poverty is a myth-busting introduction to the subject.
11 weeks, at the Mary Ward Centre, every Wednesday, 6 – 8pm, from 9 January.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Far from the madding crowd...

The human race of the 21st century:  are we still the same species as we were a few hundred years ago?  Could we survive on a remote island without running water, cars, television, Internet?   Marie Gabriel, who quit her career in the media in London two years ago, spent an interesting year on a tiny island in the south Pacific.  Read Marie's experience

We may like to ask some other questions from her experience:

  • How does one maintain harmonious relationships with his fellow cohabitants?  
  • Living in such ‘primeval conditions,’ are there any thoughts for ‘privacy’?
  • In a close-knit community like those on a small pacific island, could there be guaranteed survival of species without incest?

  • Could peace of mind be attainable when one is far away from it all?
  • Apart from the challenge of survival, what possibility is there in terms of inspiration for profound thoughts? 

Friday 23 November 2012

Tchi Mbouani: Fragiles églantines

A travers une quarantaine de poèmes, le recueil dresse le tableau d’une existence citadine, et parcourt des thèmes variés tels que le rapport au temps et les émotions face aux paysages urbains. L’œuvre se penche sur les solitudes ressenties dans un monde consumériste et dépeint les rapports souvent froids que les hommes entretiennent. Sur un ton grave mais dynamique, "Fragiles églantines" saute courageusement dans le nouveau siècle avec son lot de crises, de désenchantements, mais aussi d'aspirations. Chacun peut se sentir proche des épisodes narrés au fil des vers. En cela, l’œuvre s'inscrit solidement dans l'universel.

Tchi Mbouani Ngaliae est une auteure française d'origine camerounaise, née à Lille en 1982. Elle a grandi dans le Nord de la France où elle poursuivit des études de commerce. Tchi Mbouani a toujours été animée par une passion pour la littérature. Elle signe avec 'Fragiles églantines' sa première oeuvre publiée en langue française.

Tchi Mbouani, a young francophone poet of Cameroon origin, born in Lille 30 years ago, has recently published her collection of poems Fragiles Églantines.  Her poetry shows her extraordinary sensitivity in an apathetic society.  A rare gem!

The volume is available at Fragiles eglantines

Thursday 1 November 2012

Speaking ill of the dead: Dreyfus, Guildford Four Maguire Seven, and Jimmy Saville

Amy writes:

Some time after WWII my grand-mother said to my sister: "That Dreyfus man, really, he was guilty.  Wasn't he?" I would not say that my grand-mother was anti-Semitic or racist.  But I would say that the fact that the great-grand-son-in-law who lives in her house is Malagashi, and two of her descendants' families are half-Jewish feels like some kind of divine retribution.  My grand-father was a career officer. His wife must have thought something like this: "There is no way this little Alsatian Jew, of no consequence whatsoever, can be right and the French army wrong." 

But at least the Dreyfus Affair provoked a hurricane in France.

For a long time a dull mist hanged over the 1977 conviction of the Guildford four and Maguire seven. They were only little Irish people of no consequence and everybody needed badly to find culprits 3 years after the Guildford pub bombings.  The way their convictions were obtained and sustained does not make for pleasant reading.  They were acquitted only in 1989 in the case of the Guildford four, and 1991 in that of the Maguires.  I do not know how long it took before the Irish establishment listened to and was convinced by the evidence given by children abused by their priests.  It was more important for the bishops to protect the reputation of the Church than to protect the children and they were good at it. 

We know how long it took for the abuses of Jimmy Saville to come to light.  But it seems to me that, in every case, the greatest guilt belongs not so much to the French army, the English police, the forcibly celibate priests, the addicted Saville as to the establishment, and possibly ourselves, always prepared to give more credence to the mighty and powerful than to the little people.

Let us not renew this error.  Let us leave the police and judiciary to do their job in peace (and hope for the best!) while looking out for any sign of a witch-hunt incited by the powerful and mighty media.

Sunday 30 September 2012

Bosch and Freud - on Art and Madness

The rise of Renaissance started in the Low Countries – called Flanders.  Great artists appeared as the representatives of the late medieval new thinkers.  The status of artist rose from those considered as craftsman – “Mechanic artist” to a respectable free thinker, imaginative creator – “liberal Artist”.

The first of such representative was Hieronymus Bosch whose paintings of demonic figures in the guise of religious themes displayed his unbridled fantasies of the bestiality and humanity, the corruption of both human and animals, in the chaos of the world – reflecting the period in history where clashes between various continents and ideology seemed to have come to the central stage of civilization in the 15th century.  The Turkish Ottoman Empire took over the Byzantine in the 11th century and occupied S.E.Europe, the Black Death wiped out half of the European population

Bosch, artist of the 15th century, marked a point of departure from the Dark Ages to the Age of Enlightenment.  As a northerner, with his typical dark imagination, enhanced by witch’s oil (a type of drug) he found his unique style of Gothic art – grotesque but realistic figures fornicating, gorging, binge drinking, defecating at the same time… The symbolism mingled with realistic figures created an exotic background evoking nightmarish scenes, which exist neither in “Paradise” nor in “hell”.

Freud said that man who is unhappy with reality tends to go on the path of “Regression” – hoping to reverse back to the childhood dreams in order to escape the reality and such a man becomes a neurotic individual… If he possesses artistic flair, he can transform this negative force into an ability of a genius to create great art works… 

Many people in the “Dark Ages” unhappy with the way of life resorted to heresy or hermitage or in silent self-reflection to seek answers in religious meditation.  Driven by fear or guilt, or feeling of insecurity, those who would be misfits in normal social life went on pilgrimage or retreated to deep forest in remote mountains.  Those who took refuge in austere monasteries on the top of Montserrat (Franco-Spanish border), away from the rest of the world, found solace in a life of poverty, and self-punishment.  But did they find “Redemption”?

Related post:

Thursday 20 September 2012

More about 'proper philosophy', human nature and egoism

Amy writes:

Of course I do not want anything changed in our lovely meetings at the cafe-philo. But having heard on three occasions different people commenting that these were not 'proper' philosophical discussions, I was curious to know what such a discussion would be. My proposal was for a unique experiment just as we have had philosophy students talking to us once a year.

Is curiosity a specific feature of human nature? No, my cat was curious. Same with egoism (which we discussed at the last session). Like apes nowadays some prehistoric men did happily lend their nut-crushing stone, some not. But only man could use words to tell his friend whether it was worth or not asking for the loan. As language got refined an abstract concept of selfishness /generosity emerged which became more and more complex and imprecise as time passed. Sometimes, we discuss our various ethical topics as if there existed up there, where God resides, a big dictionary in which there is the definite definition of these various concepts and as if the only reason we cannot consult this dictioinary is that we are human, with very limited faculties. I believe that the only dictionaries in existence are the little ones handed to us by our parents, masters and friends which are slightly amended by each generation and each of us to suit our needs. Though the dictionaries of a given culture are very similar there are no two identical ones. Hence our lively discussions.

Of course it may be said that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was such universal dictionary. But all Adam and Eve learned from eating its fruit was that it was shameful to be seen gallivanting in the nude in the Garden of Eden (a piece of information for which they payed an outrageous price and anyhow how is it that it was OK before they ate the fruit?). As for the ten commandments, they are exactly that: commandments: thou shall, thou shall not. The only commandment worth discussing at the cafe-philo is honouring father and mother. What does honouring consist of?

I wonder what Moses would think of our discussions on the percentage of selfishness entering the motives of a man jumping in the water to save a stranger's life. But then was Moses a philosopher?

Friday 14 September 2012

Is human nature essentially Egoistic or Altruistic?

Debate on 8/9/2012: what is Egoism?

Example 1: if you are climbing a mountain with a friend and a huge rock is falling towards you.  Do you expose yourself in order to shield your friend or do you run for your life and leave your friend in danger?  Suppose you are with your children in a similar situation, do you protect your children first or yourself first?

Example 2: Making blood donation, is it as an altruistic act or an egotistical act?  On the face of it, as blood donor does not gain anything from his action, so it is an act of pure charity. On the other hand, one may say that giving blood is to protect one’s own interest because one never knows that one day he may need blood transfusion himself when he is ill.

Example 3: Artists, writers and other personalities with great achievements often ignore their family or friends, so that they can concentrate on their creative works.  Their glory and fame often come later and compensate for the suffering they have caused to their friends and family.  Are they selfish people?

Example 4: Philosopher Kant is a passionate advocate of altruism. He asserts that a good will is the only intrinsically good thing and that an action is only good if performed out of duty, rather than out of personal need or pleasure.  Suppose if you are sick and one of your friends comes to see you, he says to you, ‘I come to see you out of my duty, it’s not for my pleasure.’  Do you regard him as your real friend?

Example 5: Ayn Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has provoked huge reaction in the US and became one of the most popular novels in America.  The novel paints a dystopia where citizens refused to be exploited by over taxation and government regulations.  The story is to demonstrate that a world in which the individual is not free to create is doomed, that civilization cannot exist where every person is a slave to society and government.  The book has become a bible for the western model of individualism and libertarianism. So what does it prove? Triumph of Egoism?  However one must not confuse Egoism with Individualism.  Individualism does not denote utter selfishness while the former does.

The discussion was in French.  Apologies to Francophone readers.) 

Related post:
Forum: does Altruism exist?

Saturday 8 September 2012

What are 'proper' philosophical questions?

Amy has a proposition to make:

I have heard it said a number of times that our discussions at the cafe-philo are not proper philosophical discussions. So I ask myself what is a proper philosophical discussion. And I get an idea:
  • First you would need to find out who are the 'proper' philosophers among the attendants of the cafe.  Would they have to declare themselves or be declared by Christian?
  • The 'proper' philosophers would propose the topics in the ordinary way, the whole assembly choosing the one they prefer.
  • The discussion would then be restricted to the 'proper' philosophers, except for the end of the session when the rest of us would discuss the propriety of the word 'proper' applied to philosophy as well as the topic itself.
That's my idea.

Friday 7 September 2012

Does is make sense to talk about human nature?

(Debate on 1/9/2012) What do we know about human nature behind its mask? We often say it’s ‘human nature’ to be selfish, to be greedy, to be jealous, to be cruel, to be competitive, to be ambitious…  But is there any scientific base to prove that these are unique attributes of humanoid?

Human nature is incredibly complex.  The purpose of the discussion is to differentiate the nature of humanoid from the nature of other animals.  We can then determine whether we were created by God, or whether we were descendants of monkeys.

In contrast to the debate on religions and morality, several of our scientifically minded philosophers gave fascinating answers branching out to the studies of neurology, stem-cell research, and brain scans.  We discovered the shocking truth that Human Nature, in the age of genetic engineering, is edging towards a new stage on the evolution ladder of primates.  I wonder if we are heading towards a Brave New World as prophesied by Aldous Huxley, in which only Alpha and Beta the Super-human will still be natural born humanoid, while the rest, especially Epsilons will be reproduced as millions of duplicates spawn from one single egg, deliberately created with limited cognitive and physical abilities, so that they can be easily conditioned to perform simple and repetitive tasks. We have heard of the horror of Dolly the cloned sheep.  Brace ourselves for the invasion of Epsilon clones.