Is poetry better than pushpin?

Mill, in Utilitarianism Chapter 2, or 3, talks about a division between higher and lower pleasures.

While pleasure, for the standard act utilitarian is the highest good; a the justification of pretty much anything; Mill’s utilitarianism (which, I admit, I don’t care or know much about it as I should), tries to be a bit more refined than the brutish model that Bentham puts forward. Bentham has this phrase attributed to him; “poetry is no better than pushpin”, pushpin is this thing were kids are making a circular wheel move by means of pushing it with a stick…or something; the point he was making (I think) was that ceteris paribus there are no real reasons to favour one preference over another insofar as within our subjective preference set. There is nothing about poetry that makes it inherently more valuable than pushpin; all pleasures are of the same kind, and all pleasures are a good.

I’ve defined this Bentham construal very unfairly, because I have defined it such that it is almost certainly opposed. Mill, does not accept this intuition that poetry and pushpin are the same; in fact, there are higher and lower pleasures. A higher pleasure is an intellectually titillating act, such as reading philosophy, doing science, and all those other things that kids find boring and elitist, a lower pleasure, by contrast, is those things that make immediate appeal to our sensory faculty, such as lovely food and drink (particularly the latter), sex, and…that’s pretty much it.

I have to say that invoking this kind of distinction to make utilitarianism less crude is a good move. I haven’t read much utilitarian and consequentialist literature; but of the things I do know, some of the later theories like welfarism seem very much to be more deontological than one would like to accept. My intuition basically goes; the more Kantian, the better. Some consequentialist theories put in restraints like rights and, in Mill’s case, higher pleasures. Master Destre and Michael are not as charitable as they would admit they secretly are towards the later consequentialist theories; but there is something to be said about Mill.

We at Areopagus have always had a bit of respect for John Stuart Mill; firstly, in terms of his personal life; and his A System of Logic which has quite a (infamous) reputation. What, however, justifies this value judgment to say that poetry is, infact, better than pushpin. What is it to say that reading Kant exegetically is more pleasurable than listening to Alice in Chains? What makes this anything more than a social prejudice?




Wolverine action figure


When I was younger, I had a wolverine action figure. Wolverine had messy hair, and lots of it, he had big sideburns, he had stubble, he had metal bones, and he had the healing factor.

Wolverine was the toughest and roughest of the X-Men. Wolverine sometimes had relationships with women, he showed a sensitive, caring side, but this wasn’t just to women; it was to children, his friends, and those who he wanted to help.

Wolverine is the male ‘Barbie’. How far do normative icons like Wolverine and Barbie influence us when we grow up? For me, Wolverine influenced me a lot; trying to be the funny man, while also being aggressive; being gruff and messy, while also being of the elite. Trying to look cool and modern, where in your blood, you are as ancient and classical and traditionalist as it gets. Wolverine was a guy I wanted to be like…no guesses as to who wanted to be Mr. Sinister or  Apocalypse

Mr. Sinister



Looking for Spinoza: Damasio’s exploration of feeling, and Spinoza

I’ve been casually delving into Damasio’s work: Looking for Spinoza. It’s a very interesting work; one thing is that it has those paragraph appraisals that most bestsellers have; but I find these days  that some of the people I actually recognise, or have read before; Langton’s Kantian Humility, for instance, has Strawson, Guyer and Lewis complimenting her. When you get one of the greatest living Kant scholars and two of the heavy hitting philosophers of the 20thC (one of which is also a Kant scholar); your career is set.

Anyway, enough about Kant. Damasio’s work, sofar, doesn’t seem to be a work of Spinoza scholarship, but it may as well be. Damasio has been praised by Scruton (an all round philosophy busybody, wrote a good book on sex), and Nadler, who is a pretty good Spinoza scholar.

Damasio is a neurologist, neuroscientist, and general science writer.  Damasio is also a profoundly insightful human being, something that doesn’t normally pair off well with people who work in cognitive science.

I tend to have little respect for cognitive science (due to Kantian prejudices); but Damasio is a man who may put my faith back. Damasio’s work is a dual narrative; a personal exploration of the man, Spinoza; and musings on his research on the brain which sheds light on what it means to experience emotions, to feel, and, how these things relate to Spinoza’s psychology of human flourishing.

I’ve picked up a few things off Damasio; firstly, Damasio makes a distinction between emotions and  feeling. Emotions are the physical phenomena that we talk of in the brain, and feeling is the mental state that we use our everyday language to refer to. So, emotions are like those electrical impulses and whatnot, feelings are things like anger, fear and so on.

This leads to a second observation; Damasio is already advancing an interesting theory of mind, where there is a supervenience relation between the mental and the physical. This may even lean towards (and possibly unintentionally) towards
Spinoza’s notion of mind; where it is the idea of the physical object.

Spinoza’s supervenience relata is something I wish I could say I understood. Spinoza talked of a higher order of things about the physical, that is, the mental and intellectual realm, and above that, is God, for God is the idea of ideas. Spinoza’s conception of mind is a little bit more complex than the one aspect I am pointing out; but all that aside, we may refer to this relation of mental to the physical as a dual aspect theory (my old Master refuses to call it ‘parallelism’).

One thing I found particularly interesting was Damasio’s interest in Spinoza, the man, rather than his philosophy work exclusively. Spinoza was a man of a quiet life; but attracted the most important men of his era to visit him in his lodging which was owned by an artisan. Spinoza lived, for his latter years, in the most humble of residences, yet, was graced by audiences by Leibniz (who you should know a little about), Harry Oldenberg, who was president of the Royal Society, and Christiaan Huygens; whom was not only a student of Descartes, but was key in advancing physics and astrophysics.

Spinoza was a man of a very difficult and complex origin; he was “Jewish and not”, “Dutch, but not quite”, and “Portugese but not really”. How multicultural is that! Spinoza is ethnically Portugese, from a Sephardic Jew background, but due to the inquisition, his parent generation was expelled because they refused to convert to Christianity; so the Sephardic Jews were based in the Netherlands, he was Dutch by virtue of his nationality, but not ethnicity, and Jewish by his culture. Spinoza’s life is characterised by three different identities; the ethnicity he never really came to know, the culture which came to excommunicate him, and the nationality which he came to participate, but also came to oppose him.

Spinoza’s life is characterised by many kinds of social expulsion; in virtue of being Jewish, his status of his parent generation was referred to as “marrano“, which I hear is a bad word, but its meaning changes, Spinoza’s Jewish community came to exclude him due to his conception of God, and the Dutch state authorities of the  time rejected his political writings because he supported freedom of expression, in terms of religious ‘heresy’ and critique of the state.

Spinoza’s three names, if you are interested are: Bento, Baruch, and Benedictus,  Portugese, Hebrew, and Latin, respectively; and they all mean the same cognate word, albeit with different cultural bearings; they all mean “blessed”.

From my own reading of Spinoza’s life; I’ve found a very rich intellectual background. Unlike Kant, who had a very very academic university background (quite boring and standard…); Spinoza had the standard Rabbinic education, reading the Talmund, Torah, and learning of Jewish Law; he also came to learn Latin; and read the ancient philosophers, which was somewhat more standard of the philosophy education of the time. What was somewhat nonstandard of the time, but standard of the great philosophers of the time (note the distinction I invoked); he read contemporary philosophers who were moving out of the university  syllabus of Aristotle and Aquinas, to Descartes, Hobbes, and so on. This was very nonstandard, but very important.

I think a Kant moral can be relevant here too, Kant’s biggest influence was Hume (which I am too quick to forget), Kant’s background that was standard of the time was an education in the metaphysical system of Leibniz and Wolff; a dogmatic rationalist system, if Kant were not to revolutionise rationalism by a reading of Empiricist Hume, and were he not to have come across the sentimentalist tradition of Britain (or in particular, Scotland); he would not have been the great philosopher he was. Today.

It seems very important for cross-fertilisation to occur. Descartes brought physics to philosophy, Spinoza brought geometric method to metaphysics, Kant brought British philosophy to what became the continental or post-Kantian tradition, and Damasio is bringing Neuroscience to philosophy of mind.



Salvation almost has universal human appeal. I say ‘almost’ because I don’t feel too confident to say it applies to everyone…but my hunch is, it does.

What is salvation? Salvation is being saved; that is, finding resolution to the most pressing concern or worry we have. Lets face it, in some way or other, our life is pretty bleak.

Maybe you might say to me in reply “my life is pretty good, I have a wonderful partner, I have a great talent in something, I have self-confidence, I have wealth, reputation [and so on]”. Those things are transient, and the satisfaction of desire is a means-end reasoning process; while desire in particular may be fulfilled, desire as an aspect of our mental furniture is not.

Even in the locus of our own ‘transient’ projects we seek permanence, we seek the wellbeing and health of those we love; we seek the prevalence of those causes that we believe in, whether it be promoting fairtrade, or saving whales.

Salvation can express itself in all sorts of ways. Consider political instances; our daily lives. It seems almost the most universal of platitudes that life sucks.

The story my masters gave me was that it doesn’t have to be this way; if we believe that Jesus will save us, we can escape this intolerable reality.

How does this salvation obtain?  Lets say my saviour, or more specifically, my desire to be saved, is based on some concrete state of affairs; how does salvation obtain?

Father Thomas told us once that in those desperate of situations; God may not perfrm miracles, but what we find is a sense of healing through  Christ; the bereaved find consolation through the story of Jesus’ sacrifice. We do not find direct answers in the way of miracles, but, what is offered is a way to come to terms.

Let us think of two direct issues that have been on the news today; to which are pertinent to Christianity. Research on embryos, and the good friday agreement.

Research on embryos is seen as a symbol of violating the importance of life; we violate this sanctity of life by manipulating and altering those cells that form the magestic creatures that are us. On the other hand, the  research could assist with the most difficult of human ills; particularly neurologically relevant illnesses.

Where does the appeal to Jesus lie here? Where is the salvation? Or better put, from what, or from whom does the issue of salvation, or being saved come from? I think its from those sufferers of neurological conditions, or those who may need cell replication due to damages like burning or loss of organs. The question is not whether helping others medically is a good thing; but rather, is the pursuit of medical advance in the name of salvation? Is salvation in our hands? We may grant that the ultimate credence goes to Christ, but are we not taught to be Christ-like?

Now let us consider the issue of social division; the appeal to Jesus is obvious here. Peace, and mending age-old rifts are the way forward; the issue of salvation is posed in terms of the social degregation and decline of those NI communities. What absurdity it is for two cultures which are from the same Jesus to be mortal enemies. Although I say absurdity, I do not mean this is trivial.

Where is the message this day? Where are the answers to one’s problems? Is it ultimately in the hands of God? Or can we take a bit of responsibility too….


Kierkegaard: some thoughts

I heard a nice piece on Kierkegaard on the radio the other day. A very interesting philosopher, one whom which I encountered during my younger days; I have a colleague who is interested in his work; however, as a continental philosopher.

I think some aspects of the man very interesting; one thing, which I must state that I find the most poignant; is his Socratic leanings; particularly expressed through his use of pseudonyms. By a false name, his views are not pinned to him as if he endorses them; but rather, it is a dialectic, or a propadeutic, a meditation by which the reader must embrace, reject, but either way, engage with. Engaging with a thought, not as an ideological standpoint (where people talk about ‘isms’ and being an ‘x-ist’, or ‘x-ian’, but just dealing with the thought tself).

This is a good way of doing philosophy; after all, is it not the engagement of thoughts and ideas? rather than the dominance of a dogmatic ideology. We, at our worst, are those who stand on the pulpit and preach to the masses; and at our best, sit together at the agora and discuss ideas openly and freely.

Oh, another thing I found interesting about Kierkegaard was his Christianity, and moreover, his love for Regina Olsen; melancholy prevented him to pursue the one he loved the most.

Not that I find anything familiar with Kierkegaard in any of those respects…