Rethinking histories in philosophy: RED and ESD

In recent times, there has been a shift in our understanding of Early-Modern philosophy and a great amount of this scholarly shift is moved by the research group based in the University of Otago. It has long been contested (at least since the 1980s) that the story of philosophy which is taught in undergraduate classes and repeated in intro textbooks goes something like this: first came the Rationalists like Descartes who opposed Aristotelian Scholasticism, then came in a sort-of dialectical fashion an eminent empiricist (Locke), then rationalist (Spinoza/Leibniz), then empiricist (Hume) (this goes on for however far one likes) then Kant comes to the scene. This story of philosophy basically wants to enforce not only the seperateness of these ‘rationalist’ and ’empiricist’ camps, but also a narrative that many of these 17th and 18th philosophers are basically reaching the ‘great’ revelation that rationalism and empiricism are both true in some sense, through Kant’s unique melding of the Transcendental Idealism thesis.

This narrative has many consequences, one thing is that many historians critique in specific areas of scholarship to the end of basically saying ‘this philosopher is a failed Kant’. It is acknowledged by a great many people that a common prejudice is that Kant is the superior philosopher when historically reading into the works of previous philosophers, but in such a way that presumes familiarity with Kant. This is, in my view, an anachronism par excellence. Whether it is or is not a good or a true criticism is immaterial. Methodologically speaking, one is not looking at the philosophical arguments and terms with regard to the contemporamous context. The Otago group have made a great effort to challenge this prevailing historical narrative, and their work is absolutely fascinating. The Otago group provide a certain amount of justifications against this traditional story:

  1. The Rationalist-Empiricist distinction ignores the relationship with natural philosophy and the early-modern figures. Descartes was a great experimentalist in his day, for instance. The Rationalist-Empiricist distinction (RED) ignores the history of science in relation to the history of a more metaphysics-epistemology heavy narrative. It also does not properly acknowledge the extent to which the ‘Rationalists’ were experimental philosophers doing natural science.
  2. When considering the RED, the Otago group consider wherein the distinction lies. I remember once an historian of ancient philosophy said that the proto-RED distinction goes back to the presocratics (but I need a citation more than my poor memory), but a concrete distinction can be found with Hume. In Kant’s First Critique, he distinguishes between Empiricists against other kinds of groups (such as ‘noologists’), but never specifically ‘rationalists’ which suggests he does not seem to have a strict division of that kind.
  3. Alberto Vanzo points to evidence that the RED originates from a 19thC commentary commentator which underpins the typical historian’s Kant-prejudice in Early-Modern history of philosophy. The suggestion to the effect is that our reading is influenced by Tenneman’s notion (which has basically been imbibed by every repeater of the story since) rather than reading it from the text.
  4. A more interesting story can, and should be told, namely that of a more significant way of understanding this period of philosophy. Instead of distinguishing between rationalists who believe in the powers of the mind, and empiricists, who think experience only is the arbiter; we introduce a distinction between Speculative and Experimental philosophies (ESD). The Experimental-Speculative Distinction, the Otago group would contend, cuts deeper than RED: philosophers speculated, and they experimented. This also has the benefit of including a wider range of figures in this historical narrative, namely scientist-philosophers such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. The ESD highlights how philosophers in this period were integral to the development of scientific experimental method, and highlights the aspects of rationalism that typically captures the metaphysical capture of reality.

The 4th thesis seems to be the one most difficult for people to acknowledge in the Otago groups recent research. The two distinctions of RED and ESD are pitted as if they are competitors as a narrative rather than two different narratives for the same complicated and muddled history. What I find most interesting is the distinction between ‘experimental’ and ‘speculative’ philosophy has a contemporamous manifestation today, if it is even just in a superficial way. As many readers of this blog know, there is a recent movement of using experimental psychology methods in philosophy (xphi) which seemingly now has more continuity with the Early-Modern than it did with simply an RED reading. Another movement which is growing and taking across a lot of countries is a movement known as Speculative Realism, which has roots in Post-Kantian German Idealism, originating from recent philosophical figures such as Meliassoux.

The Otago group have a most fascinating research project, not only are they attempting to restructure the historical understanding of this period in philosophy, but their method is very-metaphilosophical, in terms of challenging the prejudices of the area; the methodologies are very interesting in that they don’t just focus on a single philosopher (e.g. Kant, Leibniz etc), but the commentaries and make a cross-period comparison which is almost never done on this kind of level. It’s fair to say in the history of philosophy literature, x-scholars don’t contribute as often to debates of y-scholars and this completely mixes it up to show the error of that kind of methodology. It also makes me think about the role of canonical histories in intellectual history, I was reading last year for instance that there was a movement to distort the non-German influences of Kant by Nazi/German nationalist philosophers which in turn would affect the way we historically understood the philosopher (this allegation is from Sanford Budick). Consider also for instance, how Arab philosophers were the main guardians of Aristotle’s texts for a great amount of time until only about a generation before Aquinas started to philosophise. Our histories, even our intellectual histories, are not politically or ideologically neutral, and as such, we must take a page from the sociologists and consider our ‘reflexivity’ as readers in a cultural discourse.


“Only sick music makes money today”: The Curious Case of Duke Nukem

Our friend at iHobo has posted a piece today summarising the messages of the three main console platform companies at last week’s E3 expo. It’s funny since this is one of the few times I’d want to write about videogame aesthetics, and Chris would mention the new Halo. One of the announcements of last week in the gaming world was the eternal return of Duke Nukem in Duke Nukem Forever. The game has more or less unanimously been panned as a terrible release at best, and at worst, the critics of the game have criticised anyone who would like the game for its message. In essence, this critique would be a lesson for anyone who would consider video games aesthetically.

If games are a work of art (and I won’t bother to argue for this, I’m already assuming it in this post), we can say that the aesthetic considerations for say, poetry, or music, may also apply to games. We can evaluate a game by its technical innovation, or its sense of originality in a given genre, whether its the specific genre of FPS or action games, or the even higher genus of games as a medium. In the specific technical term we may consider varying factors as to how a game may have technical merits. Comparatively we may ask how the work of Praxiteles had employed the style of contraposto; we may ask how the new Duke game succeeds as a convincing FPS/action game. On most merits it fails, it fails because it is stuck in the generic features of late 1990s games in a post 2000s era. The gameplay is said to be poor, and it employs stylistic standards of a bygone era.

The most interesting critique, however, which invites a good amount of aesthetic reflection: is the moral outrage of gamer critics on Duke Nukem Forever. There are a lot of lowbrow gags (some of which I find immaturely funny, because I am amused by gaining an achievement by say, picking up a poop from the toilet), some of which reference other games which are popular today, or some reference internet meme humour such as the ‘Leeroy Jenkins’ phenomenon from WoW. These gags seem to be added on a post-hoc basis, but the humour which is core to ‘Forever is the misogyny of the protagonist. For many reviewers, this is one (well, several) gag(s) too far.

I think there is a certain importance to how game reviewers have expressed a moral objection. Very often, critics who are unfamiliar with games express moral outrage and arguably disproportionately misunderstand the role of violence in games, or take on the notion that such violence is normalised. For now I’ll leave that a moot point, but I’ll make the distinction here that many of the critics who deride Duke’s patriarchy are modern gamers themselves.

The extent of the misogyny of Duke Nukem Forever is such that negative reviews sometimes make a point that very few who aesthetically evaluate a game make: if you find this humour funny there is something seriously wrong with you. I was discussing with Antisophie about the role of offensive humour and the specific case of Frankie Boyle’s humour and the comedy series ‘Tramadol Nights’. Many of the critics for Boyle’s jokes often made the point that his humour is sick and perhaps to a further extent, he is a sick person. But what about the people who laugh at those jokes?

One is entitled to criticise the author of a work, or a comedian, or a game for being offensive, but few ever critique the audience. Super Hans’ of Peep show once said: “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis, you can’t trust people”. True criticism must address the aesthetical adege of Nietzsche: only sick music makes money today. In Nietzsche’s critique of Wagner he does not just refer to the composer as sick, but the audience who lauds him are also sick. It is important to show the failings of an audience. When media is given this democratised appearance where complaint is a legitimate form of objection, why can we not also say that the audience is subject to criticism? Duke Nukem is not just a bad game, an audience who would like it may also be out of touch.

Michael (following conversations with Antisophie)

On believing weird things, and post-‘New Atheism’

Believing Weird things: The case of Shermer’s cycling

I have disperately different interests. I like to read Karl Popper on the train; a good date idea for me involves going to a church concert; I love to play Halo, and lately I’ve been fascinated by weight training and improving my general fitness. Having disperate interests gives me a strange identity, where I can fit into a discussion about the influence of 19thC mathematics and physics on Einstein (even when I seemingly know nothing about these subjects) or I’m joking about internet memes such as ‘forever alone’, having that wider insight borrows uniqueness by combining them with each other where they overlap. When I’m reading fitness advice, or diet advice, I’m always cautious about fad diets or the presence of pseudoscience. I was recently reminded of this when I recently read Michael Shermer’s ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’.

In Shermer’s book, the Editor of Skeptic Magazine explores the bases of why people believe in weird things. In doing so he takes a line to debunk certain phenomena and highlights the potential harm they can bring, but also takes a sympathetic view to how and why people believe in strange things. Shermer gives a personal example of his hobby of ultra-marathon cycling. The story goes that he became interested in skeptical matters from the varying advice he recieved as an ultramarathon cyclist. As many people may find in the world of fitness, there are a lot of approaches to things and many of them involve spirituality or just outright bullshit. A contemporary example of this is the ‘power band’ which uses an odious reference to ‘Chinese metaphysics’ as a basis for improving fitness. Shermer describes his ultramarathon experience which involved extreme sleep deprivation and a bout of subsequent hallucination.

Shermer notes how the brain is hardwired to certain belief dispositions, where the brain looks for paterns where there may not necessarily be patterns (patternicity). Patternicity is a useful trait for scientific reasoning, or even in creative outlooks, patterns can be exploited to artistic merit or scientific genius. Patternicity can also be the base for improper reasoning and believing in outright weird things. Shermer’s books are to be recommended, they are a nice contrast to the overtly anti-religious work of the ‘New Atheists’. Methodologically speaking, Shermer uses interesting sociological data as well as uses a genealogy based approach to some of the beliefs and movements that skeptics are typically used to dealing with. Shermer also takes a sympathetic view to the human mind that is not necessarily judgmental about having ‘incorrect’ or ‘irrational’ beliefs. To an extent, Shermer accepts that we all have some rational blindspot and features such as patternicity can be seen as features of our reasoning process inherited through natural selection, where it would have been useful for the proverbial proto-human to see a pattern and run away, than to stare a bit more and become some predatorial prey.

Post-‘New Atheism’

The post-‘New Atheism’ movement as I’d like to describe it, are a good representative of the new lineup from the CFI’s podcasting hosts in Point of Inquiry. Point of Inquiry is one of my favourite podcasts and since the end of last year, DJ Grothe has moved on to the James Randi Foundation, and the new decade has seen a new focus of issues. To some extent this may be because of the post-Bush era, where the influence of the religious right was very much in the liberal focus of critique. The new hosts represent very different viewpoints. Robert M. Price for instance, is a biblical scholar who often deals with textual issues in the Bible, and issues in the evidence concerning the Historical Jesus. This is a very unusual candidate for an atheist, Price is also more accomodating towards religon in his approach. Another host, Chris Mooney, made his name as a journalist, and is linked to a position in the secular movement known as ‘Accommodationism’. One interesting episode with Mooney a couple of weeks ago pointed out how the old Englightenment assumptions of the 18thC are out of date, and the ideals of reasoning with people and convincing them of conclusions by argumentation and reasoning just doesn’t work. In short, you can’t convince someone to give up their faith. There are a lot of cognitive and psychological factors involved with belief that involves a lot more than the rational, philosophical examination of ‘whether x is true’.

In this way, understanding and reacting to those of faith must take a much different tact to the usual approaches of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ of the previous decade. I’d like to consider Shermer as part of this more moderating camp, as he admits to be more a ‘pluralist’ and does not focus on the ‘anti-religion’ aspect of secular humanism, but more the ‘pro-science’ aspect. Shermer also grants that many people can be ‘pro-science’, including those of faith. It’s old hat to point out how derivative the ‘New Atheists’ were on the Englightenment thinkers or the anti-religious thinkers of the late 19thC and early 20thC. It’s much more interesting to consider the more sympathetic approach, the POI interview with Jonathan Kay concerning the ‘Truther’ movement was especially sympathetic, as they identified with the belief that 9/11 was a US plot, removing that belief essentially removes their identity. This gives a much more nuanced view at belief in ‘weird things’. It also gives a more sympathetic view of why people such as Dawkins are seen as ‘extremist’ when they really are not. What is seen as extreme is that atheism is depicted by these authors as an attack on religious and cultural identity, and so such an audience will automatically sound out when considering the arguments and conclusions.

The thought of a post-reasoning aware world is a very scary one. Where we accept that the ideals of good arguments simply don’t work. More and more I feel that this insight will fuel the demagogue.


On the announcement of the ‘New College of Humanities’

As many of you will have come to know of late, there has been an announcement of a private college set up by a number of private sector figures to institute a ‘New College of the Humanities’ (NCH), with A.C. Grayling as the master of the college. Certain facts about this announcement have brought much controversy, which include:

  • The college proposes to charge £18,000 a year for undergraduate courses, as a private college they are not obliged to follow the tuition fee cap of £9,000, the controversy of which (inter alia) has brought about this very college
  • The college promises ‘big’ names to join, such as Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling and Stephen Pinker, all of which are famous public intellectuals.
  • It has also emerged that this ploy of attracting big names to the staff has been slightly misleading in that they are apparently contractually obliged to only 1 lecture a year, many of whom still will hold faculty positions
  • The modus operandi of the college is poised as an ideological statement of criticism to the current and increasingly unstable higher education system in the US
  • The NCH proposes to be more like a US-style system of university college, where private sector investment can cover for bursaries for those of lesser financial means

There have been a great many criticisms of this announcement, naturally. Some range from the obvious (well, obvious to me) to the unusual, and some criticism are outright weird. In a sense, many critics have raised the mast and shown their own colours in their criticisms. Terry Eagleton has been accused for instance, as instantiating the usual critical theory capitalism conspiracy babble against the college, although personally I’ve found it perhaps the only time I’ve actually (at least initially) agreed with his work, despite the difficult language used.

One observation that is particularly interesting is the suggestion that US academics percieve this announcement more favourably than the UK. Brian Leiter’s support of NCH on his ‘Reports blog comes to me as a surprise against the overwhelming UK academic opinion against it. Many criticisms focus on the issues which I would agree as very important worries: this college does nothing for social mobility, which public universities (including even Cambridge/Oxford) vastly help with. This college is a step backwards to an age of financial and social priviledge where old boy networks are unashamedly celebrated. I can only hope that Grayling was reading ‘A Theory of Justice’ by J. Rawls before he made his difficult decision.

Some of the criticisms however, I find interesting, and unfamiliar. One criticism is that NCH isn’t private enough. A private college does not rent University of London resources and is thus parasitic on the public university. One article raised yesterday which was tangentially very interesting was that UL students have to pay to use the Senate House Library, which sounds absurd to me, considering how much fees cost, as well as the necessity it is to use a library for graduate and undergraduate study! Another specific allegation is that NCH borrows course syllabi from the UL collegiate programme. This is a pretty serious allegation considering the certain uniqueness of some courses. For a college that promises a more individually tailored student experience, using borrowed material to teach gives a certain personless anonymity to the feel of an individualist experience. Another very strange criticism is that the NCH steals the title of ‘New College’, from New College (St. Marys), Oxford, which itself is a few hundred years old. I’ll leave that up to the Oxonians to hold that torch of critique..

I think to some extent it is important to employ the principle of charity to Grayling’s College. I personally felt utterly betrayed by the notion, that was my honest first response to this announcement. That a philosopher in such high regard from his popular set of books, as well as his non-philosophical work on China, and the secular movement would commit to such a contraversial action does give me less hope for the HE establishment. That said, if I do take the principle of Charity, perhaps this move Grayling made is some incredibly clever Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias -like gesture which unites all the critics and academic establishment figures to really shake up and change their ways. Or perhaps as some sympathisers say, this project may not really have a negative effect on the HE establishment as there will only be about 100 or so graduates a year from the NCH, or it may lead to a new way of thinking about the university. It is also fair to say that in uniting such disparate groups by the announcement of the college, many people who would be putatively enemies have united against it (from Terry Eagleton, to academics in proper subjects), it would be too easy to join the bandwagon for poorly thought out reasons (see ‘New College, Oxford’ plagiarism allegation).

News like this distracts me, and this blog from what I really want to write about. In a sense, news like this is also a distraction from what should be understood as the ‘real’ underlying problem of the changing nature of government agencies (which in this instance includes Higher Education). Many of the academics who have made a name in recent publications for taking a stand against the changes in Higher Education are not really interested in being campaigning types, many just want to get on with their research. The climate is changing too much and it does look to be a war of ideologies, what is valued in society and governance? The oppurtunity for those of ability to reach as far as they can in whatever industry or endeavour they intend to solely on the basis of their talent and ability? Or a generation of Tim-nice-but-dims reaching the top of the social ladder from the bank of Mum and Dad and their connections? Of course things are a lot more nuanced than this, and the reality is a mix of the two, but this current political and social climate is very conducive for extremes to emerge from the nuance.

What is forgotten is that the changes instituted by government and university administrators come from a generation of British people who enjoyed an age of free education. Were it not for the advantages that the university system of yesteryear gave them, would they have been in the same positions of power today? In this sense their decisions form a betrayal of conscience.

I thought this news story is particularly poignant. As someone who is a graduate from the late 2000s, as someone currently struggling in this economic climate, this announcement makes me feel exceptionally lucky that I at least ended up with a couple of degrees. I probably wouldn’t survive the high selection criteria of today’s university admission bodies, and the fees would have definitely put my parents off encouraging me to go to university as well. This story has been in the back of my mind this week, as I’ve been in talks with getting involved in a social media project distinctly related to this issue…perhaps more on that as things emerge.