Tuesday, 31 August 2010


I have always had a problem with it.I would welcome an explanation as to this. Did Christ exist in some form before he took an earthly one. Also without in any way defending the practice of crucifying people and bearing in mind his moment of doubt if he knew he was Son of God he must have somehow known he wasn't going to die and certainly God did, given he must have planned it all, so what sort of sacrifice was it. As an atheist I feel millions of humans have suffered much more than Jesus did so I resent the elevation of his above all else but then I would wouldn't I.
It is a pity that it is well nigh impossible for non believers to engage intellectually with believers. I don't mean because one is superior to another but as there can never be an agreed point of departure from which the discussion can develop. However I suppose it would be interesting to have a session devoted to conversions from one state of mind to another as this would be the closest we could come to exploring the differences.

Further to beauty or whatever happened to my third eye

I was remiss in not talking about nature in my first blog, probably the excitement of mastering technology was too much. I agree that there is a difference between listening to music, incidentally when I said non literal I of course ,meant instrumental music not songs or opera, and contemplating nature but not much of one. When we look at mountains, out to sea or at waterfalls or deserts or whatever our thoughts roam free perhaps to settle on themes of life and death precisely because they are not over determined by looking at cultural artefacts.In other words when we look at the works of man we are likely to think of their significance or meaning, historical or otherwise whereas a mountain does not mean anything in the same way, it has no history (other of course than the mountaineers who have climbed it) or the sea (other than those who have sailed on it). I suspect there are contradictions here to be deconstructed by others.I thank Judith for her comment but I fear I only have two eyes and lack an inner one.

Monday, 30 August 2010


After our last session of café-philo in the V&A, I went for a tour of the Museum. Loitering in the Italian court for hours lost in thought. The topic of the day was still lingering in my mind: Is it justifiable to alleviate one’s perception of “suffering” by breaking one’s moral principles or values?

1. What is suffering?
Bound slave
I stopped in front of the statue of a bound slave by Michelangelo, the master of profound empathy for human suffering. The bound slave’s anguished facial expression and contorted torso struck a deep cord in my mind: “Man was born free. But everywhere, I see him in chains.” We suffer because we can never find the ultimate freedom that we desire. A few steps away, I saw the statue of a dying slave. The serene calm expression of the dying slave contrasts sharply with the pained grimace of the rebelling slave. Is death the ultimate alleviation of our suffering? I had that impression that the notion of “suffering” is an exclusive concept in Catholicism. Catholic art views human suffering as a redemption of our sins. Take the image of the Crucifixion of the Christ for example: a manifestation of a martyr who endured excruciating physical sufferings for his spiritual belief, preaching his flock to sacrifice their earthly pleasure for a happy after-life in Heaven, to avoid punishment in Hell.
Dying slave

Religion is a spiritual refuge for sufferers.  Religion is the Opium of the masses, the Prozac for the poor, the Soma for the Epsilon. It is interesting to know how the Oriental Buddhist view differs from the Occidental Christian view on the way of alleviation of sufferings. (I hope Peter can elaborate on this point.)

2. What are the causes of suffering?

Is physical suffering caused by poverty and illness mainly in the “Third World” given their deprived economic situation? Whereas mental suffering, depression and suicide a particular phenomenon of the post-industrial Revolution West, judging by the statistics of Prozac usage? asks Grace.

Not true, replies Christian.  Depression as a mental suffering was recorded long before Industrial Revolution in classical time as “melancholia,” a manifestation of one of the four "humours" in human body: black bile. (three other "humours" with corresponding temperaments: blood - sanguine, yellow bile - choleric, phlegm - phlegmatic). According to some 17th century writer, Melancholia is mainly caused by an unfulfilled desire, in other words, a longing for something lacking, it could be the lack of money, or lack of good health, or lack of love...

Depression has now been classified by medical profession as a physical “illness”, in other words, it is no longer a “mental suffering.” It is now in the same category as flu, headache, stomachache, toothache, gum infection, gastroenteritis, or any other infections which can be cured by popping a few antibiotics and Paracetamol.

3. To what extent can one alleviate one’s perception of “suffering”?

Gerry is more interested in finding answers to moral dilemmas in specific social context. Can one go against one’s moral principle even break the law in order to alleviate one’s suffering?

Christine thinks that those who had broken their moral principles to relieve their temporary suffering often live to regret their action afterwards. She offered an interesting example to illustrate her point: A group of air-crash survivors in the snow-bound mountains of Andes, owing to a moment of insanity triggered by starvation, succumbed to cannibalism to relieve their hunger pain. At the time, it seemed to them justifiable to eat another fellow human in order to save their own lives. Years later when they reflected on that episode, they could not resolve to ease their conscience and they lived the rest of their life in remorse.

Gerry’s question is more specific: Is it justifiable for an illegal immigrant, a penniless single mother with two starving children, to resort to prostitution? Is it lawful for a battered wife to kill her abusive husband in order to end her misery?

There is a distinction between a person who harms or destroys him/herself in order to alleviate his/her suffering, and a person who seeks to blame others for his own suffering, and tried to alleviate his pain at the expenses of others, says Malcolm.

Christine, full of anecdotes, picks out another example: the current NHS system offering to pay for Obesity sufferers to have elective operations such as liposuction and stomach binding at the expenses of other seriously ill patients who urgently needed life-saving operations. That is an example of transferring one’s own suffering to others.

The final question is: does prostitution actually alleviate or aggravate the suffering of the woman (or the man)? This is an entirely different kettle of fish. One can write a whole book on the subject: the battle of the sexes.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

A puzzling silence

I was hoping to recruit more co-bloggers but unfortunately most of our club members seem reluctant to join this forum. I wonder why there is only one follower, one co-blogger and one comment. Is this a Dead Loss? Am I wasting my time here? I am pondering at the reasons behind this silence. Several possibilities:

1.Perhaps a blog is too much of lowbrow information for some of our erudite “café-philosophers” who feed on the indoctrination of Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Maimonides, Alah, Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Bodhisattvas, Tony Blair, George Bush, Osama bin Laden, David Beckham, Tiger Woods (more on request: I can go on name-dropping endlessly...)

2. Perhaps our friends at Café-philo South Ken harbour fears of the worldwide Internet Big Brother based on allegations of Google’s indirect links within the state machinery.

3. Technophobia: our philosopher friends have a special distaste of computers or any other technological gimmicks.

4. Perhaps there is one simple explanation: that I, as a non-native English speaker, a “non-philosopher” by “trade”, cannot be taken seriously by other more articulate members of the Club. In a sophisticated, male-dominated, exclusively European branch of knowledge, namely the Western philosophy, perhaps there is no entrance visible for others not from these shores.

In this instance, how do I set your mind at rest and try to persuade you to join the blog?

This blog needs some help from contributors or else it ceases to be of any particular relevance. If we decide that our weekly meetings and exchanges merit no further deliberations then we confirm we have achieved very little.  It is sad to know that in our society where trivia like the insane questions on the “Who wants to be millionaire?” rules our knowledge base, even a group of serious-minded “philosophers” are there just for a chat about anything insignificant and forget why we need to improve our minds. Is that our destiny to be rivals in some trivial pursuit ego match?

First of all, there is no need to feel threatened by the Big Brother on Internet at all as we are here to debate about Philosophy, not Politics. Even if politics touches the border of philosophy, this blog is not a platform for hot-headed revolutionaries, right-wing or left-wing extremist, religious nuts, or perverted politicians to make subversive propaganda. On the contrary, a blog is a fruition of a true democracy where everyone is entitled to make use of this Forum to make his opinion heard and to discuss with others.

In joining the blog as a co-blogger, there is no danger of compromising your privacy. Even if the blog server will require you to open a Google account with your existing email, it does not mean you have to reveal your secret password nor your real identity. All these can be made up specifically for this blog only.

As for the technological problems, a blog is really quite user-friendly (sorry for this clichéd jargon). Once the account has been opened, the blog server will prompt you what to do next and give you technical support in the “Help”. If in doubt, do not hesitate to email me and let me know the problem. Though not a computer “geek”, I have at least the basic knowledge of how to operate a few simple tasks on this relatively unsophisticated information tool.

As for what other people think of me, or whether there are any stereotyped preconceived ideas about me, I will not make any comment.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Fear of Death...

I must thank Judith for the updates. This is last week's topic.  I hope David can write a summary of the meeting at some point.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

I am not conscious of my unconscious

I would like to amplify some of my comments I made last saturday. I think it is unnecessary and confusing to make much of the distinction between inner and outer(?) life. When we listen to music, I use music as it is the least literal of art forms, (David can correct me with a quote from Lessing if I am wrong) When we listen I suggest that it calls forth a response from precisely those feelings and sensations that constitute our everyday life such as love, sex, regret, sadness, anxiety, joy and is not a gateway to an inner life which somehow has an exclusive ownership of these emotions or feelings.  Furthermore, to talk in these terms ignores the human agency that created the music, the technical expertise needed and yes, the rational planning which allows the inspiration felt by the artist to be expressed. To subordinate the everyday to some nebulous inner life is to deny the possibility of beauty in the everyday.  Of course we do not reveal all that we are in all of our everyday experiences but I believe they can only be revealed in them. I am no expert on dreams but for what it is worth for me they represent the prose of the day rendered into poetry not autonomous experiences? events? which have no connection to who we are, have been, fear we might be or want to be. I look forward to polemical retorts and accusations of being imaginatively deficient.

Monday, 16 August 2010

In search of the Meaning of Life...

Life - what does it mean? Is it just a “bad dream between two awakenings” (Eugine O’Neill), or is it a “funny thing that occurs on the way to the grave” (Quentin Crisp)? Such was the theme of our last Saturday’s meeting:

- Our daily life in a material world is governed by rational thought and basic instinct of survival. Our inner life is enriched by the non-rational part of our psyche - emotions as expressed in poetry, music, art – something sublime, beyond our normal experience, within or without the religious context.

I will leave this space for other members to compose essays at their leisure.

I would also like to suggest our erudite friends to make some recommendations for:

- Books
- Films
- Websites

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Essay: Sainthood and Conscience

Dear Philosophers,

Our meetings are more about wisdom than sainthood, but let me invoke Saint Martin here. He ranks among Christianity’s most popular figures. Opulent churches across Europe and America are dedicated to his veneration, and yet most people have only a trivial anecdote to quote about his life: As he was on patrol with his legionnaires Centurion Martin came across a beggar, half-naked and shivering in a biting winter day. Moved by compassion Martin took off his ample army cloak, slashed it, and gave the beggar half. Isn’t that a generous move? Martin suffered more from the cold, but the poor man suffered less. That’s solidarity.

Rewind the film and twist the story. Imagine the general ordered a subordinate to share his coat with the beggar. The result would look exactly the same: a half-freezing soldier, a half-warmed up pauper. But who is generous now? Who is showing solidarity? The general, who keeps comfortably clothed? The soldier, who can only obey orders? And ought the poor man to accept an object from someone who didn’t want to give it? The poor have their pride too, and if the general had to intervene it must be because the soldier was reluctant. Should the receiver thank the general, who deprived somebody else, not himself, or thank the unwilling soldier?

Of course, beneficiaries don’t brood moral issues. Not when they are cold and hungry. But their perspective, however emotional, is not the only valid one if you worry about the long term.
For consider the soldier. What can his feelings be towards two individuals, who are causing him misery? He looks askance at his warmly clothed commander, who displays the smug smile of good conscience; and he looks down at the new coat wearer, in whom he sees no merit, for whom he feels no compassion, and he is probably ready to despise both of them equally.

You catch my drift. You are not giving when you are ordered to. The poor surround us, at home and afar, and our generals command us to provide for their care. They even chase aggressively the few who evade the order to “give”, or give less than ordered.

Notwithstanding, of course, their conflicts of interest as whilst they claim the moral high ground, they take their cut before distribution.

Can solidarity be coercive? Interpersonal relationships are based on risk. Professionals won’t turn you down; but when you hope for fraternity, rather than impersonal assistance based on computer entries, only freely given relationships will do. Is the grand ambition to achieve a society of bean counters, where everyone has a cash to check on reluctant payers; or are we aspiring to a more vibrant, generous, and yes, less regulated, community?


Course: History of Economic Thought

There will be a course on the History of Economic Thought, at the Mary Ward Centre.  It will run every Wednesday, 4 to 6pm, for 11 weeks from the 22nd September. Economic activity has profoundly transformed all societies in unpredictable ways, at different paces and in different directions. From the economics of the Indian caste system, of Taoism and Islam, the early socialist spirit of the Bible, on to mercantilism and the many socialisms, the theories of economic growth and the present debate between Keynesian and Austrian schools, the course will examine how human beings strove to improve their productive powers throughout history and what kind of social cooperation emerged from their economic activities. It will be philosophical, enlightening and fun. (Tutor: Christian Michel.)

Sunday, 8 August 2010

What good is philosophy for?

A summery morning in the sumptuous V&A café. Aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the air. Topic chosen for the day: “what good is philosophy for?”

In the past few years, the “cafe-philosophers” probed into the mysteries of the universe, exploring the conscious mind of Mankind, above and beyond the mind of other animals, debating the existence of God, and asking the eternally unanswerable questions about life and death, seeking the moral justification of crime and punishment, war and peace, or even contemplating on decadent questions about art, beauty, luxury, the sexual revolution or eroticism. It makes one wonder if philosophy is indeed a leisurely activity only enjoyed by the rich and idle class.

After introduction by Robert who proposed the question, Alfred gave his idea about the educational value of Philosophy by explaining the different branches of this discipline. Michael added his opinion: “Philosophy is the Queen of sciences. Our world is full of mysteries. In philosophy we ask questions about problems that other branches of science cannot explain. It is therapeutic for the mind.”

Jerry joined in: “Why do you want to ask questions that you will never find answers, or find answers that always disappoint you and make your life even more miserable than before?”

Sherry added her point of view: “in my opinion, philosophy is like art, which has no practical use. Art is there to inspire us. You cannot make money from fine art or philosophy...”

Jerry interrupted: “Some art makes lots of money.”

Sherry: “Art that makes money is not fine art. It is what I call Con, a form of charlatanism. Same for philosophy, which has no practical use and it is not something you can make money from. Unlike biology, chemistry, mathematics or physics, philosophy cannot be used to diagnose or cure diseases, or to calculate the distance between planets or make space rockets. Philosophy is an exercise of the mind. Like what we are doing now, a group of high-minded intellectuals gather together, we ask questions and try to find answers and we refute our answers and debate with others. Philosophy is about abstract thinking, not about doing things or making things.”

Christian: “But philosophy CAN be put to practical use. Look at the question about the Clash of Civilizations, it is about one group of people formed their own philosophy and the other group of people follow another school of ideology and they disagree with each other and this disagreement eventually leads to violent act like wars.”

Sherry: “Yes, but in the theory of so-called Clash of civilizations, we wonder if Huntington was referring to the ideological conflict or the geo-political conflict.”

Christian: “Political science is part of the philosophy. In philosophy we often ask moral questions, such as slavery, capital punishment, human right and so on. Politicians’ actions are usually dictated by their specific school of philosophy.”

Someone began to make a point about the differences of psychological state between a slave and a free labourer. The topic veered off the original question: the purpose of philosophy to the question of slavery. Paul asked whether a free man, who owns his own body, can sell himself off as a voluntary slave, surrendering his soul and his sanity.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Essay: Art and Economics

Dear Philosophers,

Economics has taught me a lot about the arts. For artists are not unlike entrepreneurs. They conceive a progressive idea, and then (that’s the critical part) they cause this figment of their imagination to enter the real world; they realise it, using their skills, talents, know-how and social networks, often against entrenched interests and conservative hostility.

Entrepreneurship was not discussed at the Paris lycée when I first read about art critique. My teachers were Marxists. Art was presented as a product of the folk soul or of class-consciousness. So dispiriting. To my rebellious and adolescent mind the artist as solitary creator was a more powerful and seductive alternative. I wanted to admire the Romantic geniuses, who produced the epoch-making works – alone, unhelped, against the world. These visionaries stood above the masses, mocked the bourgeois and made no compromise. For publishers, merchants and the public, it was ‘buy it, or burn it’. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead illustrates the notion in all its silliness, when the hero, an architect, blows up the building he was commissioned to design because the promoters dared to adorn the stark features that put the buyers off.

The promoters were right, of course. Architects, like film directors, musicians, and all artists benefit from interacting with a commercial environment. Being of service to others and making money does not imply sacrificing one’s creativity. Entrepreneurs know that. They see no opposition between the individual and the collective. Even illiberal regimes don’t asphyxiate the arts. Think Carlos V, Louis XIV, Franz-Joseph, Stalin... The lack of political freedom as that of economic means becomes a challenge, in Toynbee’s sense. Provided it is not insurmountable (and it seldom is) it starts ingenuity flowing. There are good reasons for opposing dictatorships; art is not one of them.
Economics in its purest, unfettered free-market form, teaches us to live with and affirm the messiness of the world. Don’t fight the flux. Human beings entered History millennia ago – even if a few ethnic groups have not, and a few fundamentalists want to rewind the film, but all others know that equilibrium is not an option. Things change, morph, surprise us, and there are no more potent agents of change than artists and entrepreneurs. The only criminal utopia is the one that would impose a preordained order, and seek harmony and perfection. We will no more find those at the end of History than they existed at the origin. The economist Ludwig von Mises, in his Human Action, expressed it strikingly:
“The living is not perfect because it is liable to change; the dead is not perfect because it does not live”

Christian (29 avril 2010)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Forum: Question of tolerance in society

Strands of discussion:
  • Should morality be separate from politics?
  • Evolution of tolerance: homosexuality was not acceptable in the past but is widely recognised as equal to heterosexuality now. Would Paedophilia be accepted in the future?
  • Morally unacceptable ideas or conduct can be drummed into people’s mind as acceptable – politicians often use marketing techniques to dress up a “bad” policy as a “good” policy.
  • Part of political oppression is to persuade or coerce people to accept or reject certain concepts which are morally "wrong".

Forum: does altruism exist?

Strands of discussion:

  • Selfishness inherent in human nature?
  • Love, compassion, give and take a human instinct or moral sense?
  • Is altruism a form of hypocrisy? e.g. gifts/presents are often seen as bribery or humiliation to the recipient. The donor of gift can be perceived as manipulator of power by using gift to control the behaviour of the receiver.
  • Egoism v reciprocity

Forum: Reasons to be cheerful

Strands of discussion:
  • What is happiness?
  • Is happiness an inborn disposition?
  • In Life of Brian, he sang “Always look on the bright side” when he was nailed to the cross, is this example of “cheerful disposition”? Or plain denial, admitting defeat?
  • Can everyone be as happy as the other?
  • Are we by nature Schadenfreude – only happy at other’s misfortune?
  • Pursuit of happiness conforms to the American way of life, equivalent of the pursuit of material possessions?
  • Is it an insidious way of dumbing-down?

Forum: Can human beings live without conscience and consciousness?

Strands of discussion
  • difference between consciousness and conscience
  • instinct v conscience
  • what is conscience – an inversion of guilt?
  • what is instinct – sexual, maternal, survival, killing.
  • were we born with conscience?
  • moral sense – conscience – guilt is indoctrinated into our mind during our adult life.
  • moral question: different countries have different standards of right and wrong