Tuesday, 28 September 2010

L'Art, est-il la représentation de la folie?

Posted on behalf of Céline :

La Grotte de Lascaux, France, ca.15,000 BC
Depuis au moins l’antiquité, la philosophie s‘interroge sur l’art: il est donc bien naturel que notre Café Philo de Samedi dernier débatte sur l’une des innombrables questions qui se pose: l’art est-il la représentation de la folie?  
L’art a effectivement évolué depuis ses premières expressions sur les murs des grottes habitées par les hommes préhistoriques. En effet, jusqu'au siècle des Lumières, il n’y a pas de véritable différence entre l’artiste et l’artisan : le travail est basé sur la notion de beau en tant que représentation de la réalité, ainsi que les connaissances techniques démontrées. Alors que l’art servait essentiellement aux représentations religieuses, (une arme intemporelle pour défier la mort, même s’il avait occasionnellement une fonction publique ou sociale illustrée par la commande de livres d’heures ou de portraits), la renaissance place l’homme au centre des préoccupations artistiques et fait ainsi appel a nos sens et nos émotions : c’est la séparation rationnel (« logos ») et du sensible. Au XXe siécle, l’artiste remet en cause le rapport entre beauté et art, et n’hésite pas à désacraliser ce dernier en lui donnant une fonction de «révélation libératrice », comme le déclare René Magritte. 
Livre d'Heures, 1442
Il est vrai qu’il est difficile de définir l’art : est-t-il contextuel et ne se révèle en tant qu’art dans une galerie dûment exposée (Shéhérazade nous donnait l’exemple de la Joconde, exposée au Louvre, et qui serait peut-être méconnue internationalement si elle était exposée au fin fond le la campagne italienne), ou bien est-ce qu’il « n’a que faire des proclamations et s’accompli dans le silence » (Marcel Proust) ? L’art doit-il avoir une fonction autre que celle d’exprimer ses émotions personnelles, et créer un lien entre l’auteur et le spectateur ? N’a-t-on pas néanmoins vu certains artistes repousser les frontières du réel à travers leurs arts jusqu'à en sombrer dans la folie, tels Schuman ou encore Van Gogh ? 

Van Gogh 1889

Les formes les plus contemporaines de l’art explorent différentes théories, en se servant de l’art comme moyen de thérapie : écriture, peinture, composition musicale, ou encore création de concepts, la « définition» de l’art est ainsi très diversifiée. Mais la plus grande folie a laquelle succomber ne demeure t-elle pas le risque d’exagérer l’utilisation de art, et de l’exploiter commercialement au point de voir s’établir comme le déclare Andy Warhol « l’art des affaires qui succède a l’art. […] »

See also:
Bosch and Freud - on Art and Madness

Sunday, 26 September 2010

History of Economic Thought: Plato

 Being a complete novice at economics, I went to the course of the History of Economic Thought at Mary Ward Centre with great curiosity.  In the first lesson of economics, I was delighted to learn something about ancient Greek society and the rise of Greek philosophers.  Ignorant as I am in philosophy as in economics, I had only heard of Plato in the context of Platonic Love.  Never had I had the faintest idea that Plato was also the forefather of Communism!  In the 4th century BC, he exposed three main evils of an imperfect society: inequality, greed and ignorance and attributed the roots of all evils to ruthless profit-making and exploitation.

To be serious, Plato was not a communist.  The difference between Plato and Marxism lies in their theories of social divisions. Marxists advocate a society ruled by Proletarians as in their slogan: “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Whereas Proletarians/Producers/the working class in Plato’s ideal “city” would be placed in the lowest strata of the society.  Plato’s ideal was a society ruled by Priests and Philosophers – the thinkers, not by Producers/the working class.

Let’s be honest, can the working class really rule the world without the “intellectual guidance” from “Priests and Philosophers”? I wonder if anybody still remembers George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which Squealer – the intellectual pig, run the whole show of the Farm with his glib tongue.  The egalitarian slogan of the communist farm reads:


Related topic:
History of Economic Thought

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Shyness and introversion

Good news for those who suffer from "shyness":
'hormone of love' cure for shyness

Palpitation, raised blood pressure, hot blushing face, sweaty skin, clammy hands, fidgety feet, uncontrollable tremors. We have all experienced such fears. But this is a particular brand of fear, namely the fear of being seen, fear of making a fool of oneself, fear of being ridiculed. It’s like a fever, a disease. One feels ill and helpless when such fear strikes.

But it is such a strange topic for Café-philo: Shyness. Does an awkward personal trait merit a serious philosophical debate?  To my surprise, our fellow café philosophers have proved fairly flexible about the range of topics that might be admitted into our discussion, as one can argue that “philosophy” is also about questioning anything under the sun. So be it, we can talk about “shyness” just as we can babble on about the foul British weather, no doubt which is largely responsible for the making of the British characters: moodiness, shyness, introversion, stiff-upper-lip, and so on. 
Shy Politicians

Normally we would attribute a person’s shyness to a deep inferiority complex about one’s appearance, hence such a word as self-consciousness. Some café philosophers, however, tried to use Reverse Psychology to analyse the situation. They think that “shyness” could be interpreted as a manifestation of Superiority Complex – it describes certain persons who rate themselves higher than others and their inhibition and reticence can therefore be seen as a way of showing their contempt for others. I am not sure if I would agree with this theory. To my mind, it is one thing to be shy and bashful and it is another to be inhibited and reticent. Some former “Spin Doctors” in the previous government had a reputation of being secretive and not forthcoming. Can we say that the “Prince of Darkness” of the previous Cabinet suffered from “shyness”? Or, shall we assume that they felt “self-conscious” of their secrecy so that they had to borrow some fig-leaves to cover up their shame, like our biblical ancestors did?

In Asiatic feudal society, women were required to behave in accordance with certain social protocols, in which shyness was regarded as a virtue, and modesty and humility the quality of a well-educated woman. Even in old Europe, this kind of social protocol was not uncommon. Before French Revolution, people from lower social strata had to show diffidence in front of nobles. Assertiveness in the old days was considered bad manners, equivalent to the behaviour of drunkenness.

As Jean-Christophe pointed out, those who like to speak out in the public are usually those who try to impress, to show off their eloquence. Of course, there is nothing wrong with show-offs. Neither is there anything wrong with introverts. Some like to be in the limelight, some like to be on the sidelines. Some are loud; some are quiet. Some like crowds, some like solitude. Chacun a son goût. This is the beauty of living in a multi-cultural society, if we allow diversity of cultures to co-exist, why can’t we allow diversity of personalities to co-exist?

Why then in this day and age are there so much negative connotations attached to the words vaguely connected with “shyness”, such as introversion, inhibition? I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the trait of introversion in general perception. If you are interested in popular psychology, there is an article worth reading:
Introverts should be left by themselves

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

the pigeon of ealing spreads his wings after lunch

I came to the conclusion some time ago that I am much less philosophical than many of my fellow cafe goers.By this I mean I prefer to think and talk concretely rather than abstractly or devote too much time to definitions, both worthy exercises of course.However and this is a contradiction when the discussion is more overtly political or sociological I look for the philosophical principles underpinning it.Contradictions are I believe the motor of both history and personal development so I am not too troubled by playing host to them. All this is a slightly nervous prelude to suggesting that there are three main conflicts, dichotomies call them what you will that provide the intellectual base to our discussions. Conscious of Hegel's dialectic as few cannot be after spending their Saturday mornings in that oasis of thought that is the cafe I put forward my ideas in the hope, no expectation let me show some confidence ,that others will take them forward if not actual penetrate them with opposites to a higher plane. The three are free will and determinism, cultural relativism and universal values and the third nature versus nature. Now I was wondering if it is possible to establish a hierarchy in the sense that one of these conflicts shapes the course of the others or are they totally autonomous in terms of their battle grounds or more tantalising is there an ur conflict from which all three have sprung. A pretty strong case could be made for determinism, if its validity could be established, but as I cling to the belief that free will does play its part in human affairs I am reluctant to let it crush all opposition that has the temerity to stand in its way. Of course others may suggest other such conflicts.I thoiught about faith and reason but decided this was not a conflict of interpretation but a difference in approach, similarly with deduction and instinct (not sure that is one?) and so on. I await enlightenment.
On a completely different subject.Would members be interested in keeping a record of topics discussed as well as those which were proposed but not discussed. If so I am happy to use this blog to do so if Sherry can come up with the means.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Aesthetics (philosophy of art) overview

Posted on behalf of Peter:

Aesthetics is normally seen as the province of the ‘fine arts’ i.e. painting, poetry, dance, music, drama and sculpture. In the twentieth century, art photography and film were added. This blog entry lists some of the definitions that have been put forward to explain what makes something ‘art’, and a sample problem for each definition when used in isolation. (Note: these ideas occur in many works on aesthetics, but a good source is ‘Philosophy of Art’, by Noel Carroll, used as reference here).

1. Art as Representation (Imitation).
Dating from the time of Plato and Aristotle, this view states that art is representation of life. (Problem: some things now regarded as art are clearly not representational e.g. abstract painting).

2. Art as Expression of Experience.
This view became popular during the Romantic period: it’s not so much reality that is important, rather the artist’s response to it. (Problem: just because something expresses feelings, however sincerely, does not make it good art).

3. Art as Significant Form.
This view states all art must have a significant form i.e. combination of lines, colours, space etc. (Problem: how does one distinguish between significant and insignificant form).

4. Art as provider of Aesthetic Experience.
This view states there is a category of emotional response specific to works of art. (Problem: is there an aesthetic response separate from an ordinary emotional response, appreciation of pattern etc).

5. Art as Family Resemblance.
This view states that something is art if it resembles artefacts that are already regarded as works of art. (Problem: how does it cope with things that break the mould of what has gone before).

6. Art as Institution.
This view states that if a member of the art world (critics, curators, gallery owners etc.) defines something as art, then it is art. (Problem: what criteria make you eligible to speak for the art world).

7. Art as Historical Definition.
This view states that something is art only if the intention of the artist was to exemplify an acknowledged historical, artistic perspective e.g. representation, expression. (Problem: something currently defined as art may not have had an artistic intention behind it when it was created e.g. tribal artefacts now regarded as art).

8. Art as Historical Narrative.
This view states that something is a work of art if it can be seen as part of a logical progression in a historical process (narrative) i.e. the evolution of the art context. (Problem: something currently defined as art may not have been part of an acknowledged evolution in artistic thinking e.g. tribal artefacts now regarded as art).

Monday, 13 September 2010

Is philosophy dead?

(This debate was conducted in French: 'La philosophie, est-elle morte?')

Apparently the renowned physicist Steven Hawking recently made a remark that “philosophy is dead.” He claims that philosophy has failed to explain the creation of the Universe; only the laws of natural science have so far made some successful attempts in finding logical conclusions, mainly by using the disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology. In a similar vein, another celebrated scientist, Richard Dawkins recently declared that the world was not created by God. Interestingly, the claim that God never existed gains more traction than any apparently very popular conspiracy theory.

It is understandable that as a scientist, Hawking, like his contemporary Dawkins, would automatically reject the theory of God’s creation of the Universe as there is no scientific proof to support this religious hypothesis. However when he crosses the boundary of natural science and ventures into the realm of philosophy, we cannot help wondering if Hawking is fully qualified to proffer a plausible argument. In his rejection of the validity of this independent discipline, Hawking does not seem to distinguish philosophy from religion. In his opinion, philosophy, with its fuzzy logic, is unable to find answers to the mysteries of the world in the same way as religion cannot provide any valid proof of the existence of God. It appears that Hawking had made an equation between philosophy and the existence of God. Shall we quote this as a classic example of fallacy – a valid but unsound deductive argument? (see Critical Thinking 1, 3 September 2010)

In this day and age, some scientists have to resort to the marketing tactics and self-promotion style of pop stars and post-modern artists in order to gain public recognition. No offence intended, Hawking and Dawkins enjoy practically the same degree of fame as their counterparts in arts and entertainment business. Making seemingly provocative anti-establishment statements is an effective and sure way of elevating a scientist’s status to the level of a celebrity. I dare say that the only difference between the two learned gentlemen and Michael Jackson is that the formers deliberately show their contempt of our presumed Divine Creator while the latter considered himself the reincarnation of the son of God. Hawking said: “Philosophy is dead.” Dawkins said: “There is no God.” Michal Jackson said: “I will never stop helping and loving people the way Jesus said to.” Carrying that cross must have been a burden for him during his short life on earth.

In any case, if philosophy has indeed been taken over by natural science, why are we still carrying on debating endlessly questions after questions in our Café-philo drowning ourselves in cups after cups of coffee? Well, our discussion last Saturday has drawn some unanimously agreed conclusions to justify the absolute necessity of Café-philo:

1. Natural science cannot explain ethical questions: when Dr. Oppenheimer invented the Atom Bomb in New Mexico, maybe he was unaware of, or simply ignored the moral consequences of his invention because he was not a “Philosopher”. Owing to his invention, the extinction of mankind has now become possible; if not inevitable. Shall we allow this kind of Frankensteinesque scientific experiment to go on without any philosophical intervention?

2. Natural science cannot find answers to artistic flairs: can we use math, chemistry, or physics to explain the inspirations that a composer, or an artist, or a poet received during the creation of music, art, literature? Obviously not! That’s where the philosophy of art (aesthetics) comes in.

3. Natural science does not teach us how to drink a delicious cup of coffee, or how to appreciate the finer points of life: For philosophy let us watch the world go by, ask questions about ourselves and about others, and try to find answers to these deeper questions, even though there may never be any final answers to all the questions we asked. If all questions can be solved by using fixed mathematical formulae, then philosophy shall indeed be pronounced dead on arrival and we shall all pack up and leave our Café-philo in search of the miraculous.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Beauty of Fig Leaves

The theme last Saturday focused on “Religion” as a follow-up of the previous topic of “Suffering”. Since the majority of the café-philosophers are self-proclaimed Atheists, the topic of religion seemed to be an easy target of ridicule.  The God, our all mighty divine Providence received a fair dose of thrashing… The quotes of the day:

The only difference between Religion and Cults is the amount of real estate they own.”

God is triangular.”

God is our absentee landlord.”

God is a dog spelt backwards.

Christian art is full of fig leaves.”

Let’s have a look at some more Fig Leaves:

For this topic, I would recommend this website: Atheism & Agnosticism.
I would also recommend the four articles written by our co-author Peter on philosophical theories, critical thinking, and philosophy of religion (see articles below).

Our next session will be in French.  I hope our Francophone friends can make some contributions to this blog in the language of Descartes or in the language of Shakespeare.

Au plaisir de vous lire...

Religion, Suffering and the Pursuit of Wealth (2)

Posted by Peter:

Some Critical Thinking issues
This entry is one of an occasional series to raise Critical Thinking issues associated with Café Philo topics, or other discussion threads. The origin for this entry comes from Café Philo on 28/08/10, and subsequent blog ‘Religion, Suffering and the Pursuit of Wealth’.

1. Straw Man fallacy
Statements criticising the pursuit of wealth often produce apoplectic responses from free-market fundamentalists, economic neo-conservatives and similar demographics. A typical response is to accuse the speaker of wanting everyone to go back to living in caves, repudiating the technical / medical advances of the last two centuries. This is an example of a Straw Man fallacy i.e. deliberately mis-representing someone’s position, and then attacking this distorted position. In fact it is perfectly consistent to wish for a basic standard of living for everyone, taking advantage of core benefits of modern science, while still criticising the pursuit of money as the ultimate goal. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an example of a more balanced view of what it means to be human.

Two associated ideas aiming to justify the pursuit of wealth are also open to challenge, but are not developed here for space reasons. (1) Trickle-down effect (2) Facilitation of philanthropy.

2. Cognitive Dissonance (holding inconsistent thoughts) / Information Bias
Particularly popular amongst certain sections of the American religious community, the theory of the Prosperity Gospel takes wealth as a sign of God’s approval, thereby attempting to square the unsquareable circle between right-wing economics and the Christian ethic ‘love of money is the root of evil’. It provides the glue between religious fundamentalists (representing God…) and the Republican Party (representing wealth and privilege…). There is no shortage of Biblical references for the polar opposite to this view, so Information Bias (ignoring these embarrassing counter-examples) has to be used in order to avoid Cognitive Dissonance (the Bible can’t be both pro and against the pursuit of wealth).

3. Slippery Slope fallacy
An interesting recent example of the Catholic Church’s attitude to material wellbeing comes from the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America during the 1970s/1980s. The motive power for this came from a core of brave Catholic priests, looking to improve the economic situation of their people in the face of huge disparities of wealth and power, under oppressive right-wing regimes. Their natural allies were left-wing parties. Led by Pope John Paul, the Church institution (allegedly) suppressed this movement, on the basis it would inevitably lead to atheistic left-wing governments, if successful. The Slippery Slope fallacy says that taking one step on a certain path will inevitably lead to a (worst-case) scenario. Better to support repressive right-wing regimes, nominally Church supporting.

Religion, Suffering and the Pursuit of Wealth

Posted by PeterFurther thoughts from Café Philo on 28/08/10

“All life is suffering”, the Buddha is reputed to have said. In Christianity the Sermon on the Mount promises future rewards for those suffering now: “Blessed are the poor, meek etc.”

Many countries with a strong religious ethos are, or were historically, economically poor – and religious / political authorities have certainly used the promise of post-death riches to make a virtue of necessity (and stop the peasants revolting…). But can one conclude that religious statements on suffering are contingent on economic contexts, and that once living conditions improve they lose their relevance ? Is the pursuit of wealth the final answer ?

An expanded definition of suffering suggests an alternative interpretation. Major religions have traditionally seen the pursuit of material wealth as inimical to spiritual development, but as part of a wider warning against the idea that true happiness can be found through satisfying the demands of the ego (self) in the external world. Wealth is just one of several traps: others include power, reputation, fame, comparison with other people, defining one’s value by virtue of a role (e.g. job title, parent), or by adherence to a system of ideas (religious / political).

Of course some of these things can be pleasurable, even creditable. However suffering comes because (1) A person may not achieve any of these external factors of validation (2) Even if they do, the happiness is often transitory or unsatisfactory - a loved one leaves, we buy something but soon get bored and have to buy something else etc. Suffering, defined as the inevitable result of over-emphasising the needs of the ego in the external world, is as big an issue for a rich person as for a poor one - though the external trigger issues might be different.

The proposed alternative is to go within the mind and seek peace / happiness by accessing one’s deep Self (spirit, divine essence, Buddha nature, God, Tao, atman etc.). It is interesting to note that, whereas theologies tend to divide both within and between religions, the mystical traditions of major religions are more tolerant and tend to unify around the concept of ‘one God, many paths’.

There are many Critical Thinking issues that arise in discussions on ‘the pursuit of wealth’. Some will be discussed in a separate blog entry.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Philosophy Overview

Posted on behalf of Peter:

Any definition of Philosophy will inevitably be partially subjective, since it involves individual choices of emphasis and scope. For a birds-eye view however, the traditional division of philosophy into five main areas is still very useful. These areas are Logic and Epistemology (foundation thinking skills), Ethics and Aesthetics (how to assess the value of something), and Metaphysics (speculation on the ultimate nature of existence).

1. Logic: how to reason
This area is further divided into Formal Logic and Informal Logic - also referred to as Critical Thinking. Formal Logic can get very mathematical and self-referential, and tends to be the province of academic philosophers. Critical Thinking is much more accessible and is a key tool in assessing our own, and other people’s, arguments. (Note: in logic the word ‘argument’ means ‘an attempt to persuade by reason’, not ‘a dispute’).

2. Epistemology: how we know what we know
This area covers knowledge, and when it is justifiable to assert that we know something . It includes issues of scientific method (philosophy of science) and divine revelation (I know it is true because God revealed it to me / someone else).

3. Ethics: what is a moral act
We confront ethical questions both as individuals and at a societal level, where politics is hugely informed by ethical questions (e.g. assisted suicide, fairness of competing political theories).

4. Aesthetics: what is good / beautiful in art
This area has become less important over time, as the distinction between high and mass culture has become less significant. However it is still relevant in, for example, arts funding, where we have to ask why we should subsidise ‘x’ over ‘y’.

5. Metaphysics: the ultimate nature of being.
At one level, this area has also become less important over time due to the enormous discoveries about the world made using scientific methodology. But if one puts the philosophy of religion into this category, then it remains of huge importance to vast numbers of people.

Other definitions
At the next level down we find various permutations of the ‘philosophy of xxx’, where ‘xxx’ equates to mind, language, science, law etc. Here ‘philosophy’ tends to mean the underlying assumptions, goals, methodologies and scope of the topic. In most cases these can be linked back to one of the five main areas e.g. philosophy of science (epistemology), philosophy of law / jurisprudence (ethics).

Critical Thinking 1 - Argument Structures

Posted on behalf of Peter:

Critical Thinking provides a set of tools to assess the truth of arguments (argument = ‘attempt to persuade by reason’). Arguments that we need to analyse are everywhere: media commentators, financial advisors, business proposals – in fact anywhere where we need to decide if we should believe someone’s line of reasoning (including our own…).

Argument composition
An argument has one or more premises leading to a conclusion. Premise and conclusion are types of statement. Assessing an argument basically involves asking the following two questions. (1) Can I rely on the information used in the premises i.e. is it true, false, biased, complete etc. (2) Can I rely on the way the argument structure is used ?

Argument structures
There are two major types of argument: Deductive and Inductive. There is also a third type, Abductive, that tends to be used mostly in relation to scientific enquiry. Each major type has a set of associated thinking errors, or ‘fallacies’.

Deductive arguments
Deductive arguments deal in certainty. A ‘valid’ deductive argument is one where, if the premises are true, the conclusion must also be true. If the premises are in fact true then the argument is also ‘sound’. A deductive argument can be ‘invalid’ (even if the premises are true, the conclusion could be false) or ‘unsound’ (the premises are objectively false). An example of a valid, but unsound, argument would be: ‘All Greeks are green. Socrates was a Greek. Therefore Socrates was green’.

Inductive arguments
Inductive arguments are those seen most often in daily life, and are based more on probability / rational expectation than certainty. The equivalent of deductive validity is ‘inductive force’ (probability of conclusion being true greater than 0.5). The equivalent of deductive soundness is ‘inductive soundness’. An argument is inductively sound if its premise(s) are true and the structure is inductively forceful e.g.: ‘John rarely hands his homework in on time. Therefore it is likely to be late again tomorrow’.

Abductive arguments
Much scientific development is based on inductive reasoning i.e. if an experiment is testable and repeatable, then a general rule may be able to be built. However abductive reasoning is also used. Here, faced with an event or set of circumstances, a number of possible hypotheses are developed to explain the event. The most plausible explanation is then taken as a provisional explanation (subject to further testing).