Monday, 6 July 2015

Conference Report: British Personalist Forum International Conference 2015; Episode 104

At very long last, and much to the relief of all concerned, we bring you now the final instalment of our gripping new 117 part series: The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report

Episode 104: The Last Gasp
Curare-tipped darts; I forgot to mention the half-dozen curare-tipped darts protruding from the lithe yet muscular form of our heroic chairman, Alan Ford; their colourful flights, beautifully crafted from the feathers of rare jungle birds, waved gently in the pre-luncheon breeze. He looked as though some homicidal acupuncturist with a passion for Sherlock Holmes stories had struck him down. 
     Fortunately, the aforementioned tweed jacket which Alan sported during the entire conference provided more than sufficient protection from poison darts, stampeding horses, speeding motors, lead piping, gun fire, and antique daggers. You just can’t beat a good English tweed.
     Alan, we were delighted to discover, was fine. He had simply decided to take a short rest beneath the table in order to recruit himself before lunch was served. 
     And what of Conti? Well may you ask. Charles, it seems, had himself nicked off to get some lunch amid all the kerfuffle. Both he and Alan were back in their customary places by the time the plenary sessions began. 

     The two plenary sessions were given over to international speakers, fast friends to many of us there that day: Jan Olof Bengtsson and Juan Manuel Burgos.  Jan Olof took the first and set out bravely to defend what he calls the “Personal Idealist conception of the finite self”.  Against whom, he was defending it, I should hesitate to say, since just about all of us there were ready to give it a go, but defend it he did with no shortage of vim and verve.  His jumping-off point was the auseinandersetzung between personal and absolute idealism, respectively represented by Pringle-Pattison and Bosanquet; his focal point, the mode or nature of personal existence: “substantive” or “adjectival”.  All of which has significant impact on whether and if so how the very idea of “the absolute” has any part to play in personal idealism and perhaps any philosophy at all.
     One of the things which struck me as particularly interesting about Jan Olof’s paper -- aside, that is, from the well-seasoned meat of the argument, which I couldn’t hope to reproduce here -- was just how far idealist thought has come from those antediluvian arguments about what and where the “real” is to be found.  Realists, meanwhile, continue mumbling and stumbling about, raking toothlessly over the same old arguments, and waving their increasingly flaccid phalogocentrism in our faces as though J. L. Austin, Hamsphire, Strawson, and, yes, Wittgenstein, had never put pen to paper.  What I don’t understand is why anyone would care whether anything, let alone “the world” (whatever that means), exists independently of our encounters with it. Isn’t there enough to do -- and stop doing -- with all that we do encounter?
     That is not to say that I consider myself an idealist, except perhaps in the colloquial sense of being someone perpetually setting themselves up for disappointment.  In fact, Richard made a point of asking me what I am -- philosophically speaking, that is.  “I know you’re anti-realist, but what are you?”  He said, provocatively.  Anti-realist?  Naughty, very naughty.  Can’t be “anti” something which is unintelligible.  Philosophical and, worse, theological realism comes under the same umbrella as square circles, honest politicians, leftover wine, popes who preach that not having children is selfish, people who say they don’t like the film Casablanca, and so on: it isn’t really wrong or mistaken as such, it’s just incoherent.
     So I’ll give you the same carefully considered response I gave Richard: I’m just like any other man, only more so.  And my profound gratitude to the brothers Epstein for that superb line.  Besides, as anyone who read my report of the Lund conference will know, “danger” is my middle name. 
     But I digress. I do think that Jan Olof is right in saying that there are, for the personalist, many valuable resources in idealist thought, resources to which it would be unwise to allow old fashioned prejudices against the Bishop of Cloyne, to blind us.  

     The second plenary was given over to Juan Manuel Burgos who is, in case you don’t know, the biggest cheese of all in both the Spanish Personalist and Latin-American Personalist Associations.  Juan Manuel took us on a fascinating expedition into the relations between realism and idealism in personalist thought. Interestingly, the former, he identified with the Continental schools while the latter is a peculiarly Anglo-American phenomenon.  Now, I freely admit that my knowledge of Continental personalism isn’t especially deep; even so I can’t help wondering whether they are all really realists.  Some are, clearly; those most influenced by Thomism, for example: Wojtyla and that crowd.  But Buber? The most cursory glance through the first few pages of I and Thou suggest otherwise.  Whether Buber counts as a personalist is, of course, another matter. 
     I can believe, however, that the American’s are largely idealist in tone and inclination.  That would be just like them.  But the British?  Never!  Apart from anything else, we Brits are far too fond of complaining to be idealists.  More to the point, I’m pretty sure that Macmurray -- a Scot -- wasn’t.  In fact, I seem to remember someone -- Mark Arnold, I think -- telling me that Macmurray was a scientific realist.  Now, I’m not entirely sure what that means -- empiricist of some kind, I suspect -- but Mark has read considerably more of Macmurray than I have, so I’m inclined to take his word for it in this case.  As for the other two stars of the BPF, Polanyi and Farrer, I do not think that they were either realist or idealist.  In fact, I’m inclined to agree with Richard when he suggests that even to ask whether they were realists or idealists is to miss the point completely.  Richard was actually talking about Polanyi, but the same goes for Farrer.  Both men went far, far beyond that archaic dichotomy.  That is why, in Faith and Speculation, Farrer refused to take all those silly old arguments between empiricism and rationalism seriously.  Of course real knowledge depends on discovered facts; who could seriously doubt that?  But facts aren’t discovered without intelligent exploration or understood and communicated without intelligent exposition.  Similarly, in another context, he argued that it is the interplay between events and images (or ideas, or concepts, or what have you) that supplies the key to knowledge and understanding.  Events alone are shy and secretive creatures; unclothed by images and ideas, they might tempt our curiosity but ultimately they reveal nothing very much worth knowing.  Likewise, images sans events are merely ‘shadows on the clouds’. 
     Hence, the real question is how mind grapples physically with both the world and its own identity.  All the rest is sound and fury.

     And so we reach the final scene of our adventure: in which we climb aboard an old DC 10 bound for freedom and the New World; the baddies pull a gun and get a belly full of lead; and Charles and Alan walk off into the night at the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

     The conference drew to a magnificent conclusion with an open session and general discussion. Participants, audience members, and witnesses were all alike invited to comment on the proceedings. Mark Arnold almost set the room alight again by asking whether personalism might be done without having God in the picture.  Fortunately, it was late and we were all pretty done in so daggers remained sheathed, horses unstampeded, and poison darts in their silver Edwardian poison dart cases.  Charles suggested that personalism most certainly could be done minus deity and pointed Mark towards Ludwig Feuerbach’s ‘therapeutic atheism’.  This might seem like a odd thing to say, given neo-ortodoxian kingpin, Karl Barth, once declared Feuerbach to be more theological than most theologians.  I myself might be inclined to disagree with Conti on this point; but then, you see, it all depends what you mean by “God”.
     And so the conference was finally brought to a close with secret handshakes and the customary demands for alcohol.  We cheered, we applauded, we put on our coats and stood around taking pictures on one another’s phones.  It had all been a great success, as everyone agreed.  That, as I may have mentioned previously, was largely thanks to Richard Allen who did all the organising.
     And then, quite suddenly, the lights went out....

     Here endeth the barely coherent and semi-libellous ramblings of our Oxford correspondent; here endeth our world famous and irregular feature: The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report. Tune in next time when our correspondent returns to the medieval world of not particularly rural Ireland, where the sheep run wild and free and a good broadband signal is but a dream, there to continue in his quest to make philosophy entirely inaccessible to ordinary readers and scholars alike.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Conference Report: British Personalist Forum International Conference 2015; Episode 97

Regular readers will hardly be surprised at the lengthy interruption which has taken place in our usual service.  This was largely due to the need to address a number of legal charges facing our conference reporter, including slander, libel, obscenity, public drunkenness, public indecency, plagiarism, incitement to riot, defamation of character, tampering with a jury, fiddling with a judge, wearing a hat without due care and attention and many, many more.
     For the time being, however, the legal onslaught facing our reporter has abated.  We are therefore now in a position to bring you the next thrilling instalment in our 128 part series: The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report.
     In this episode, our correspondent makes certain wild and improbable claims about thinking and at long last gets round to his own presentation.  

Episode 97: Enter Beau Sabreur, Stage Right
Any who know me may also know that the majority of my philosophical education was undertaken with Charles Conti.  As an undergraduate at Sussex, I took as many of his courses as I could and afterwards, when it finally dawned on me that the world of work was really no fun at all, I returned to do my postgraduate work with him.  One result of this was a particular view of philosophy as, essentially, an interdisciplinary exercise.  From the first, Charles impressed on his students the idea that one cannot do philosophy unless one knows something about literature, poetry, art, psychology, history, and so on and so forth.  In this, Charles is, of course, mistaken. Obviously, one can do philosophy having studied philosophy and nothing but. It just won’t be any good.
     Pondering this, on that sunny spring morning, while the coffee slopped and biscuit crumbs filled the air, a thought occurred to me.  Boasting? Oh yes indeed.
     How much of that reductivism, about which we had heard much talk the day before, I wondered, is down to over-specialisation.  Obviously, it is vitally important for us to be fully immersed in whatever our field happens to be if we are to make any real headway.  But in so doing, we risk losing so much of the wider and deeper vision which is the legacy of human history.

     And then, while pondering this thought, I had another.  Two in one day, I was clearly on a roll.
     What I want to know is why no one in materialist camp -- biological or merely physical -- seems remotely concerned by the unintelligibility of the reductivist case.  After all, if it is true that we are just biological processes or physical forces or whatever, then the language in which that claim is made is meaningless.  Like all the other phenomena that we mistakenly attribute to personal consciousness, all the books written and speeches given are themselves reducible to the physical processes involved: sound waves, light-refracting surfaces and so on.  What, after all, is the point of signing ones’ name to a book which clearly implies that its contents are meaningless?
     Both Farrer and Strawson asked this question at different times. Macmurray took a more positive view on it when he pointed out that, given the dialogical structure of personhood, the universe must have personal dimension to it, since you wouldn’t get persons out of it otherwise.  And even if such an absurdity were somehow overcome, any persons you did get wouldn’t be able to know anything about a universe that was radically different from them.
     That was the starting point for my presentation, which was next.  Step forward beau sabreur, with a song in your heart, and do your duty.

     As it was, I did not, in fact, have sufficient time to treat the materialist question in any real depth.  Not enough time?  Heavens to Murgatroyd!  What am I saying?!
     Forty minutes may seem like a very short time for a paper, especially to those who, like Conti, would readily speak for hours and hours.  And hours.  To mere mortals such as I, however, it soon becomes clear that, when all the writing and rehearsing and rewriting is done, forty minutes is a very long time to talk.  By the halfway mark, I was exhausted, collapsing, almost snoring aloud.  Fortunately, so was my audience.  Those few who struggled to retain a grip on consciousness, I twice threw off the scent and so gained time for a short rest.  Once, by mixing up my pages, thereby losing my place, and once by knocking someone else’s papers all over the floor.  What choice did I have?   I was banjoed.

     Undeterred, however, I still managed to dilate at some considerable length (two or three minutes over time, in fact) on the philosophical psychology underpinning Austin Farrer’s remarkable, indeed, visionary, metaphysics.  Like that metaphysics, and the epistemology which is a corollary of it, Farrer’s philosophical psychology is essentially interactionist, relational. That’s not quite right.  It isn’t just that others teach us how to be persons in the first place; it’s more to do with the way in which others invest personhood in us.  We then appropriate and internalise that “otherness”, transforming it into personality which reflects the moral, spiritual, and intellectual values which both inform and in-form it.  And then, if reasonably sane and healthy, we go on to do the same for others.  If not, we become academics.  What is particularly interesting, however, is the way in which this philosophical psychology, what we might call the interconstituitivity of consciousness or personhood, also supplies the analogies we use for exploring and understanding the rest of the universe.  Language drawn from this storehouse of personal images and metaphors abounds in modern speculative cosmology and the sciences as a whole; and, it seems, necessarily so.
     There’s something absolutely crucial to the development of metaphysics going on here; something which I’m finally starting to see the shape of more clearly.  But we shall, no doubt come back to that at a later date.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

     I finished reading and the questions came thick and fast.  At the mere mention of Romanticism, a riot broke out in the back row.  Those titanic forces, Ford-zilla and Conti Kong could be restrained no longer; fur and feathers fully flew; even Margaret Yee got caught up in it.  While all about me lost their head and flung themselves, almost bodily, into the fray, I kept mine exceedingly well and took a well earned rest.  Mayhem and madness reigned
     Eventually, when the red mist cleared, a battered and bloodied Alan stood alone on the field of battle. I looked at Jim Beaurgard and he looked at me. Alan burped softly and fell in the dust. Was that cyanide we smelled? As he lay before us, we could see the elaborately carved handle of an antique dagger protruding from his nattily tweed-clad back. And were those tyre marks smudgingly merged with the hounds tooth check? They were; tyre marks, if I’m not mistaken, from Mk. 1 Mazda MX5; white with leather interior and walnut finish by the looks of them.   Beside the tyre marks was the unmistakable trace of a dozen or so hoof prints. Gun smoke filled the air and a length of lead piping lay on the ground beside our beloved chairman.
     What could possibly have happened?  Obviously, some terrible accident had occurred.  And then, as we looked around the room, we realised that Conti was no where to be seen....

     What happened to Alan Ford?  Where did Charles Conti disappear to?  Will either of them be back in time for the final, plenary, sessions of the conference?  Who was that masked man?  And why had Juan Manuel Burgos brought a car, a horse, a selection of antique cutlery, a lemonade bottle with the word “CYANIDE” written in red marker pen on it, a gun, and some basic plumbing supplies to a session that he was chairing? The answers to these questions and many more will be revealed in the  final heart-stopping instalment of…
The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report!

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Conference Report: British Personalist Forum International Conference 2015; Episode 96

Once again, we apologise to readers for being unable to bring you parts 16 to 95 of our new 112 part series, The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report.  This is due to the excess of obscene language and peculiarly lurid description contained therein.  Instead, we bring you Episode 96.

Episode 96: Philosophy of Action, Metaphysics of Description, and a Fried Slice
Breakfast the next morning was hearty and fulfilling, involving as it did liberal portions of pig in sundry styles and prepared with considerable élan.  Which is to say, fried, with a serving of mushrooms and a friend egg on top.  Across the long dining table, Raymond Tallis saw fit to make plain his medical credentials before curious onlookers, conference-goers, and a handful of tourists.  This he did by partaking of two breakfasts: both the porridge, which received much praise on all sides, and the full English, which knocked the previous evening’s culinary abuses into a cocked baked bean tin.  Starting the day with two breakfasts is, my best beloved, assures me, a sure sign of a medically trained soul.  From my personal experience of medical professionals, I can only suppose that this is necessary to fortify those Florence and Freddie Nightingales against the copious amount of alcohol that will likely be consumed at the first possible opportunity.
     Recruited by breakfast, we bid the tourists adieu and lurched windily off to the conference rooms.  For us, it was back to the Basil Mitchell Tomb, deep within the labyrinth of Oriel, there to witness Karl Simms and Charles “King Kong” Conti fling themselves headlong into the mysteries of “personhood”.
     We were fortunate to be joined that morning by Margaret Yee of St. Cross College, organiser of the aforementioned Dawkins/Williams debate (see episode 15, above).  Margaret is an old friend of Charles’ and another Farrerian scholar.  I had invited her to come and listen to us, which she kindly did.  I suspect, however, that the debate, particularly appending my session later that morning, was somewhat more vigorous than she, or anyone else for that matter, expected.

     That, however, is for later; another presentation, another room.  Back in the BMT, where Margaret sat with quiet dignity, the rest of us slumped eggily in our chairs.  David Treanor deftly took the reins and steered Karl Simms to the starting blocks.  With cries of “Tally ho!”, “Yoiks!”, and “Better out than in!” we were off.

    Drawing primarily on Hampshire’s early work, Spinoza, as well as his magnum opus, Thought and Action, Karl offered an masterly analysis of Hampshire’s philosophy of action.  A vital move, this, in the redintegration of mind and body or, more properly, of the realigning intending mind and the bodily acts it intends.  It constitutes what one might term a “philosophical nut-shot” for Cartesianism and all subsequent forms of rationalism-cum-realism which wantonly reify and deify the rational mind contra bodily act.  A devastating blow, perfectly aimed and timed, reminding any sheer or mere thinkers of their undeniable physicality.  Driving the point forcefully home, Karl leapt athletically to his feet, thereby demonstrating the full force of Hampshire’s psychophysical unity or mind-body holism.  “Disconnected from a context of intentional behaviour,” he growled as a steely glint lit his eye, “our actions are merely random, irrational.”  Testify brother, testify.
     Intentionality is not, as Karl showed, simply a movement of the mind; not even a movement of the mind towards the world.  It is an integral element of the active, e.g. psychophysical, involvement of persons in a physical and personal environment.  Intentions inform and in-form actions, so locate us in a world of others and objects.  In such interactive locations and orientations, lies the key to personal identity. For it is only in so far as we can distinguish ourselves as an ‘centre of action’, an intentional agent, that we can distinguish ourselves as anything at all. To put it another way, the difference between what I do and what happens to me, as Karl and Hampshire know well, makes all the difference.

     Within moments of Karl and Hampshire replanting our feet on the ground and our posteriors back in our seats, Conti Kong lit the blue touch-paper with a Strawson Vesta and carried us high above the crowds and clouds.  His aim in doing so was not, of course, to disconnect or denigrate our association with terra firma, but to get a better view of what it means to talk about having a world to live in.  Dancing on a tightrope, finely woven from descriptive metaphysics, personal -- in the fullest, philosophical sense -- reminiscence, and dirty jokes enough to keep the, frankly, fairly lowbrow crowd interested, Charles reminded us that all our descriptions come saturated with values or, as he put it elsewhere, ‘layers thick with predilection’.  In so doing, he blurred the lines most efficaciously, between descriptive, constructive, and revisionary metaphysics; a risky tactic for someone on a high-wire, but he trod the line deftly as always.  In essence, this picks up where Hampshire, and, indeed, Strawson himself, left off: with a metaphysical vision conditioned and commissioned by others; or, as Charles might say, ‘finished off with a flourish of common humanity’.  Extending, or elevating, this with a profound sensitivity to the subtlest of spiritual connections, we were offered a glimpse into the mysteries of personhood: i.e. modes of self-conception which defy definition and even refuse tightly fitting descriptions, but finds itself instead in refractive images so relies on the richness of the language used to express, or even extend, it. 
     In this, the irony and aptness of his recollections became particularly clear; not least as he was speaking in a room named for his own D.Phil. Supervisor, a man whose grasp of the simplicities and subtleties of personal relation seems to have been somewhat shaky at best.
     Fearing, I suppose, more for the quality of his presentation than the attention of old ghosts, Charles wanted it known that he was stepping in at the eleventh hour, after Robert Garcia had, sadly, been forced to bow out, owing to ill-health.  In this case “the eleventh hour” had been barely a week; not long, I’m sure you’ll agree, to prepare for an Oxford conference.  This did not, in the end, effect the quality of the work -- no one who knows him really supposed it would -- but it may have contributed to the marginally slower pace of its presentation, especially compared to last year.  Charles was, no doubt, exhausted after his efforts to do himself, Strawson, and his audience justice.  As a result, the pace dropped well below the breakneck speed for which he is well known. No bad thing, I think; for the Oxford Rozzers were surely on duty that day.

     With the conclusion of Charles’ paper, a much-needed coffee break was called.  And there we shall leave our merry band for another episode.

     In conclusion, I feel it my duty to inform you all that I have received a complaint.  Yes, just one.  It appears that there are those among you who tire easily and, though complimentary in every way, find all this dry and dusty philosophical discourse somewhat heavy weather.  Could I not, the inquirer asks, leaven the bread of deep thought with the yeast of humour?  Just an occasional sprinkling of wit to lighten the reader’s load.  Swine.
      Half is not enough, apparently. 
     Far be it from me to seek to deny my cherished readers anything; the pursuit of your happiness and enjoyment is my confirmed habit and settled policy.  I offer, therefore, the following titbit, for your amusement and edification. 
     There were these two nuns in the bath....

     Once again, we are sorry to report that we must end this episode a few lines early.  The rectitude of our correspondent’s alleged “wit” cannot be vouchsafed by this broadcaster.  Indeed, when asked his views concerning sex on the television, he merely saw fit to observe that it seemed rather dangerous, given the considerable risk of falling off.  Fortunately, all such vulgar nonsense will have been thoroughly expunged when you tune in again for the next episode of The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Conference Report: British Personalist Forum International Conference 2015; Episode 15

The UK Elections are now over and vote-aggedon has apparently averted.  While we wait to see whether the Scottish Lion actually intends to eat the British Bulldog, dipped in chocolate and deep-fried, let us return to our new 96 part series, The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report. 

     We regret to inform our readers that we are presently unable to bring you parts 3 to 14 of the series owing to the libellous and obscene nature of many of the comments made by our correspondent concerning his fellow conference-goers.  We bring you now, therefore:

Episode 15: Two Curious Afflictions and a Diagnosis
Such a cornucopia of clever ideas; do you not agree?  A veritable garden of philosophical delights, both earthly and unearthly.  And yet this was not all there was to see.  For we come now to the large (stolen) Indian jewel in the middle of the shiny gold hat which was our conference: namely, our keynote speaker, Professor Raymond Tallis.  Professor Tallis kindly took time off from saving the NHS in order to come and mediate between the brainy and the beastly.  Using his considerable skills as a medical practitioner, he diagnosed two of the great ills which afflict modern thought. These, he dubbed “Neuromania” and “Darwinitis”.   
     “Neuromania”, as you might guess, is the morbid tendency to identify persons with their brains.   Thanks to developments in the neurosciences, this has become quite fashionable these days.  There have been all sorts of exciting experiments in recent years, such as those by Benjamin Libet.  These experiments generally claim to demonstrate that freewill and other important aspects of consciousness are, in fact, predetermined in or by (I’m never quite sure which) the electro-chemical fizzing between our ears.  They prove nothing of the sort, of course, as Ray clearly showed.  

     Interested readers might also like to have a look at the debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams on ‘The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of their Ultimate Origin’.  Organised by Sophia Europa, specifically by Margaret Yee of St. Cross College, the debate was held at the Sheldonian Theatre in 2012.  A You Tube video of the event can be found here:

     This is a subject particularly close to James Beauregard’s heart, for he too is on a mission to point out that persons are much more than electrochemical fizzing.  This, as James has pointed out on more than one occasion, is a Very Important Issue; not least because of the development of neuro-ethics, a new field in which neurological data is regarded as the vital clue to understanding moral decisions.  In abstraction, this would be worrying enough, in the courtroom, as I am told happens in the US, it is quite terrifying.  
     If I am honest, I also find it very annoying that there are people out there confidently writing books on ethics and the deep and difficult questions of our nature with little or no philosophical training.  A background in neuroscience is, it seems all one needs; and, after all, it is not as though one needs to have studied ethics or philosophy to understand the subtle issues involved.

     Back to the Prof.. “Darwinitis”, it turns out, is a peculiar condition in which biological evolution is believed to hold the key to human nature.  Symptoms may also include spots and personal itching, though Ray didnt actually say so.
     The difficulties with such a claim are many and various.  Evolution itself, when understood as a random process of “natural”, selection is ill-equipped to explain the emergence of complex patterns of existence, such as human consciousness, for example.  More simply, human beings are not merely biological organisms.  They are social and cultural ones too.  But the “rules” of biology don’t apply to cultural institutions or agents; and when they are mistakenly applied the results always turn out to be counter-intuitive, alarming, and flatly contrary to most sensible moral intuitions.  One can;t help wondering whether we havent had enough of Social Darwinism already.
     It is worth pointing out that not all evolutionary biologists buy into this absurdly reductive conception of persons and their development. Julian Huxley, for one, seems to have been possessed of a far richer understanding of human existence.  He, at least, was unafraid to talk about the cultural and social nature of persons, not to mention transcendence and spirituality.  True, Huxley thought that the development of personal consciousness in its intellectual and spiritual forms was really a matter of evolutionary processes extending themselves into a new dimension.  But it seems obvious that, in saying so, evolution itself became, for him, a very different kind of metaphor.  

     Biological reductivism isn’t just a kind of category error, however; that is, one where terms belonging to one field -- or, as Wittgensteinians might say, language-game -- are dropped from on high into another, quite different, one.  Worse than that, it also punches dirty great holes in the plot of human history and conscious development.
     What, for instance, is the point of mythologising behaviours which are already conditioned and, in some sense, “underwritten” by evolution?  In the matter of ethical behaviour, for example, the idea seems to be that there is some evolutionary advantage to moral or altruistic behaviour.  Then, in order to make it palatable, we dress these supposedly utilitarian activities up in moral and religious raiment.  The question is, ‘why bother?’ If evolution is doing its (alleged) job properly, then we shouldn’t need to persuade people to do something which they are already doing and which will stop them dying out.  Evolutionary processes have already made such behaviour-patterns rewarding in some way, why bother with all the fancy duds of goodness and rightness too?   
     And it’s not just ethics, is it.
                                         Consider sex.

       That’s enough of that!  I’m sorry but we really must get on.
     The point is, we can’t just get down to doing the deed of darkness without mythologising it in some way.  But what’s the point of that?  Sex, like soup, is nice; but unlike soup it is, by and large, reasonably effective at reproducing the species: there’s your ‘survival value’ right there.  So what, pray tell, is the point in mythologising it the way we do?  If it’s all about evolutionary advantage, that should be enough for anyone; there’s no need to bang on about love and romance and monogamy just so we can bang one another.  Surely something like “phwaor!” would be sufficient preliminaries to dipping your bread.  But of course, it isn’t sufficient for most people, not remotely.  Hearts and flowers and love poetry and so on may be evolutionary overkill but they do seem quite important to the continuation of our species, not to mention our sense of who we are.  
     Besides, if the evolutionary biologists were right, then it would severely cut down on my opportunities to use my very favourite collection of words in the English language; for I am a chap not in search of procreative activities nor simple mating behaviours neither.   I am (with considerable gratitude to H. P. Lovecraft) a chap in search of “that nighted penguin fringed abyss”.
     Romance dead? Not a bit of it.  
       And even if it were, as that dark and crafty, long-faced lover said,
                                         That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may
End up with carpet burns.

     In the end, you may be pleased to know, Ray generously concluded that persons are much more than just a pretty brain-pattern.  What’s more, he was prepared to go so far as to conclude that neither are we merely beasts; this, as I pointed out, despite having just sat down to dinner with us all.

     Considering how flat that, rather good, joke fell on the night, however, I am not so sure.  

     All this was, to some degree, preaching to the choir, of course; and a very good sermon it was too.  If there was any slight issue with his presentation it was that his slide of an MRI brain scan was the wrong way round, as my best beloved -- herself an MRI radiographer -- pointed out.  Shame on you, Professor T., shame on you.  

     At the conclusion of this excellent keynote speech and the exciting discussion which followed it, we did what philosophers off the leash will do: headed to the pub around the corner for a pint or two of large.  Then we went on rampage around Oxford before returning to our gloomy digs.  

     And so, to bed.

     We regret that we have been forced, once again, to end this report at this point.  Given the notoriously lurid imagination of our correspondent, not to mention his excessively “colourful” vocabulary, we trust the reasons for doing so are obvious.  We hope you will return again soon for episode 16 in our new 112 part series: The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Conference Report: British Personalist Forum International Conference 2015; Episode 2

We return now to our new 72 part series: The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report.

Part 2: First Philosophy, then Booze
     To return to the presentations: besides the choice selection already mentioned, there were, of course, many other fine speakers.  Our chairman, Alan Ford – he of the rippling deltoids and Betty Marsden eyes – took time out from his own wine-tasting adventures to explore the logical and metaphysical foundations of modernity on our behalf.
     I was fortunate enough to see Alan do something similar at the 2009 International Conference on Persons in Nottingham, also organised by Richard.  That presentation, however, was on a far grander scale.  Much like the buffalo of the old West, Alan had ranged freely: not across the plains but through every form of artistic and literary expression known to our species.  Sad to say, he was, on that occasion, cut tragically short after only several hours. A number of those attending had, so they said, to return the United States; apparently their visas had expired.  Feeble excuse.  It was a truly epic performance we saw that morning; we can only hope that one day it turns up on BBC 2 of a Thursday evening.
     This time, however, our son of a coal miner (and not, as I had assumed, a sea cook) chose to focus on the tendency of modern thought to mystify some of the most vital aspects of human experience: namely, our values and, in particular, the ethical.  Without these, one might say, we are barely human at all.  The consequences of that “surreptitious slippage” to philosophy are well known; the consequences to what we might loosely term “the real world” are insidious and becoming increasingly, and depressingly, obvious.
     Citing Wittgenstein, specifically in the Tractatus, as a key culprit would not escape Charles Conti’s attention; for Charles himself is working on a new analysis of Wittgenstein which seems almost entirely to oppose Alan’s view.
     The challenge was made, the gauntlet thrown down.  Two men eyed one another in steely fashion.  In a flash, coal miner’s son and stonemason’s son were stripped to the waist and fully oiled up.  The assembled crowd began to take bets on who would emerge the victor from this titanic struggle.  Like caged animals they circled each other.  And then, with a mighty roar, they clashed.  Like King Kong and Godzilla, they duked it out in the Basil Mitchell Room.
     Long before these titans had finished battering one another over Wittgenstein, an armistice -- however temporary -- had to be negotiated.  There was one last speaker that blood-spattered afternoon.  In the end, hands were shook, backs were slapped, and teeth swept into the corner of the room.
     Thus did Jan Nilsson bravely take the floor and offer up a discussion of Rowan Williams on Dostoyevsky (or is that Dostoevsky?).  In so doing, he too plunged us into the mystery of “personhood”, brought us face to face with the “unfathomable being” that, through Dostoyevsky, Williams sees us to be.  This “unfathomableness” stems, we were told, from that characteristically human freedom which orients us towards what Friedrich Waismann might forgive us for calling an “open horizon” of possibilities. There is, in Jan’s talk of “unfinished dialogue” something quite close to Waismann’s conception of the “open texture” of language; a vitally important application, perhaps, of his reminder that we cannot foreclose on the language of description.  Nor, perhaps, can we foreclose on the extemporised enactment of our own existence.
     The upshot of this, Jan has dubbed a kind of “apophatic anthropology”; a striking phrase, given the vital importance such a via negativa have for any attempt to make sense of “God-talk”.  It is grounded in a significantly richer conception of our finite nature; not in ontological deficits, as necessitarian thinkers would have it, but rather a kind of personal plenitude which carries personhood far beyond the limits of description and definition.  From now on, I, for one, will gladly temper my over-confident talk of the “infinity” of “personhood” in future, while continuing to press for something a little less strident, something more like “indefinity” or “unfinalisability”, as Jan (borrowing from Mikhail Bakhtin) put it.  The point is clear: those who would limit consciousness or “personhood”, either physically or metaphysically, are on the wrong track.  Any limitations we may have are self-imposed not inherent, the consequence of separation and isolation from those others among whom we may fulfil our potential, our selves.

     Such, then, was the first day of the British Personalist Forum International Conference.  But that was not all, for that evening promised further excitement in the shape of Professor Raymond Tallis.
     Before that, however, we ambled untidily back across the road to the main college buildings where we were to encounter the curious culinary marvels of their kitchen.  Little did we know what was in store for us, what gastronomic abomination would rise, dripping and seething and slithering monstrously, from the cyclopean gravy and utterly destroy our appetites.
     By then, Charles Conti had wisely abandoned us.

     As hinted in episode one, it was not all bad, however.  There was, for instance, a wine that was both pleasant and plentiful; freely imbibed, you may recall, entirely at James Beauregard’s arm-twisting insistence.  Thus, we conclude this episode fully clothed and with a review of that same Château Oriel by our internationally renowned neuro-gourmand, Italian-American, and fearless consumer of alliums far and wide.

Oriel College House Red (served at the conference dinner, thank God!)
A blend of Carignan Noir and Granache Noir, this is an apparently young wine, deep purple, with a dark/opaque core and light purple rim.  The nose brings red fruit aromas of strawberry and plum.  On the palate this is a medium bodied red with medium tannin, good acidity and good balance of components that reflect and extend the nose, with pleasing flavours of plum, strawberry and some hints of raspberry.  It would pair well with Modern Ontological Pizza.  The finish is of medium length.  85 points
James Beauregard Ph.D., Advanced Certificate
(Wine and Spirits Education Trust, London, England)

Look out for episode 3 of this 84 part series, The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Conference Report: British Personalist Forum International Conference 2015; Episode 1a

2… 1

We bring you now the next instalment of our new 42 part series dedicated to The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference. In this episode, our intrepid reporter describes the daily life of conference-goers, with details of both feeding and mating rituals. Readers are warned that the following report may contain distressing scenes.

Episode 1a: Sing “Macmurray!” every day, that’s what my Grandma used to say
     Deep within the labyrinthine bowels of Oriel college stood we.  Shadows clung cobweb-like about our shoulders; a strange sepulchral chill had settled upon the room.  It was the first day, the first hour, the first moment of the conference.  Who knew what horrors were to come, what appalling rites would be conducted, to what Stygian depths a human soul might sink, and what ancient nightmares would be released up when it did?
     Suddenly, before a very old joke could be plagiarised in toto, Richard Allen and Alan Ford welcomed us all and opened the conference.
     The scene was set.  On with the presentations.

     You may recall from Part 1 that the philosophy of John Macmurray was well represented.  In this regard, David Treanor and James Beauregard did a fine job.
     David flew in from Tasmania for the event; just he had last year, in fact.  His arms were recovering from the ordeal and he was enjoying being the right way up for a change; so much so that he was not, I am sure, remotely put out by the chairman of his session being ten minutes late.
     Yes, of course it was me.   I managed to get lost between Lecture Room II in the aforementioned sepulchral bowels, where Richard and Alan opened the conference, and the Basil Mitchell Room about a hundred yards away.  A dedicated Ariadne, armed with her ball of yarn, would, no doubt, have made short work of it, but I was lost.  The block in which we were housed -- behind the Provost’s rooms, I think -- has two distinct alleyways, if you can imagine such a thing.  I picked the wrong one; of course I did.
     Luckily, after what seemed like hours in this benighted wilderness, I was found, tired, cold, and hungry, by a couple of other lost souls.  Pooling our mighty intellectual powers, we decided that the other alleyway was worth a try.  And it was.  Everyone was waiting for us.  David, at last, could begin.

     Consider two things: first, this was a personalist conference, organised by the British Personalist Forum; second, John Macmurray is generally acknowledged to be a -- if not the -- central figure in British personalist thought.   He is, in David’s words, ‘an aberration to a homogeneous philosophical pedagogy.’  And jolly good too.   (Not only an important figure in his own right, Macmurray was also Farrer’s tutor at Balliol, making him a contributory factor in the development of one of the most important thinkers of the 20th Century.)  Given these two things, it might seem a little peculiar that David should wonder whether Macmurray was, in fact, a personalist after all.   He’s lucky he wasn’t lynched.  

     The question, it seems, arises from the practical or pragmatic emphasis of Macmurray’s philosophy: the substitution, as David put it, of doing for thinking.  This same emphasis on (as I would say) intelligent action over sheer or mere speculation, Farrer would go on to develop both metaphysically and epistemologically.
     Pragmatic personalism: excellent stuff.  What struck me as interesting was the way in which David applied, as is his wont, Macmurray’s thought to matters of crucial social import; in this case, education, health-care, and social services.  This speaks of a social consciousness, sadly lacking from much modern philosophy, but which David always does supremely well.
     This aspect of David’s paper soon gave rise to an interesting conversation about the experience of educational, health, and social-care professionals.  In his recent book, The Common Good (to which a issue of Appraisal will soon be dedicated) Jonas Mortenson cited research suggesting that health-care professionals, in particular, are frequently rather unhappy people.  This is something I can corroborate from my own experience.  Being married to one, I have long associated with such folks and they are as odd a bunch of people as you or I are ever likely to meet.  But if Macmurray et al. are right about the proper route to a fulfilling life, a fully human life, being through our thoughtful and caring participation on one another’s lives -- as I am sure they are -- then the question is, ‘why are health-care professionals so miserable, not to mention, peculiar?’  No great conclusions were reached that day, although it was mooted that much may result from the depersonalising systems within which they are forced to work; but I do not think that is all.
     This is, I suspect, a topic to which we shall have to return at some later date.

     Following David’s fine application of Macmurray’s principle ideas, James Beauregard also sought to draw some of the lessons of Macmurray’s thought.  James’ concern was twofold: one the one hand, the neuroscience’s; on the other, signalling some of the vital connections between Macmurray’s thought -- and personalism in general -- and the insights of modern psychology and psychotherapy. Such connections are not, of course, particularly surprising; but they are very exciting.  James focused primarily on Object Relations Theory, which was developed during the early part of the 20th Century (whence I have now returned).  The key players in this development, we were told, included Melanie Klein (sister of Calvin) and the famous Hollywood Swashbuckler, Ronald Fairbairn Jnr., whose seminal work, Object Relations Theory in the Clinical Setting, was, I believe, written while Fairbairn was playing Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
     It is curious that Object Relations Theory isn’t better known among personalists given the parallels with the central insights of our tradition, especially in the area of interpersonal relations.   Perhaps Shakespeare was simply wrong: a rose by any other name has a distinctly fishy pong about it.  Badly named as it is, ORT , as James ably demonstrated, offers valuable psychological support to the philosophical personalist and as a contribution to the proceedings was very welcome indeed.
     And that, children, is why the ICP should be a compulsory element of all psychology courses too. And, now I think about it, neuroscience courses.

     Taking the first, neuroscientific, hand, James’ presentation concerned the inevitable limitations of any conception of persons undertaken in such terms alone.  The attempt to eliminate deep metaphysical questions about personal consciousness, freewill, morality, and so on is not, of course, remotely scientific.   It is, as one commentator has observed, merely witchcraft with clipboards.
     Otherwise put, there is an irreducible logical gap between the MRI scans or what have you which supposedly show us the mind at work and the claim that the neurological activity depicted by the scan really is the mind and nothing else can be.  David Hume is usually blamed -- not altogether fairly -- for this kind ersatz empiricism, although I can’t help wondering what he would have made of that inferential leap.
     Fortunately, we were saved such abstract speculations as James, with Macmurray’s help, set to filling out the picture of persons.

     Then suddenly, I heard the unmistakable twang of elastic....

     This concludes Part 1a of our new 56 part series: The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report.  Unfortunately, we are, once again, unable to bring you the remainder of this episode.   It has emerged that the detailed descriptions of feeding and mating rituals among conference-goers, which we hoped to bring you, are libellous; mere fabrications of our correspondents fevered, and frankly degenerate, imagination.   We hope that readers are not too disappointed and will continue to join us for the remainder of this 69 part series.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Yet Another Conference!

We interrupt this interruption to our usual, if somewhat irregular, service to bring you this Very Important Announcement. 

Just in case there are any readers out there -- that is, just in case. And on the off-chance that, there should in fact be any, one or two might be interested to know that the 13th International Conference on Persons is this year being held at Boston University from the 3rd to 7th August.

     Anyone who read my report on the last one in Lund (August 2013) will be aware that I am strongly in favour of these events. If it were up to me, they would be made a compulsory part of all philosophy and theology courses at every level, anywhere. Psychology courses too, for reasons that will become clear in a later post.
     Should any of you choose to attend, you will find the most interesting philosophy being done anywhere, and at the very highest levels too. It is, I am convinced, almost as exciting as our very own BPF Oxford Conference -- almost. And if the prospect of encountering exceptional ideas proves insufficient to tempt you, the conference-goer would also meet some of the finest and best people in this or any other business. 

     I readily confess a bias in this matter. As well as knowing a number of the key-players such as Jan Olof Bengtsson, Phil Cronce, and Randy Auxier (who really ought to arrive at every lecture on horseback) -- excellent fellows, all -- I also know the local organiser. It is, if you can believe it, the now legendary James “snake-hips” Beauregard, philosopher, neuropsychologist, wine connoisseur, pizza maker. He’s worth the price of the ticket alone.
     Besides these bums, I am also fortunate enough to know the founders of the ICP: Tom Buford and Charles Conti. Two finer men, better teachers, and more exciting philosophers, one could not wish to meet. Tom always attends; Charles hasn’t done for many years, which is a great shame. In his absence, however, Tom, when called upon to talk about the founding of the ICP, tells the tale of the plate of tacos over which he and Charles dreamt up the idea and so brought us all together in the first place. God bless those tacos. 

     Exactly what Charles Conti -- alleged Italian-American and most definite hater of alliums large and small -- was doing eating tacos, I cannot begin to imagine. 

     Nevertheless, here is the Call for Papers for this year’s conference. I strongly recommend going if at all possible. If it was within my power to force you all to go, I would do so without the slightest hesitation; for your own good, naturally. It will, without a doubt, be the best thing anyone will have been to all year. 
     With, of course, the single, vital, exception of our own BPF Conference in Oxford. 

     So, for anyone thinking that they might attend, stop thinking and, like the chicken that crossed the road, just do it.
Aug. 3rd to Aug. 7th, 2015
Boston University, Boston, MA, USA


Papers in any area or discipline are welcome, so long as their themes are of concern to the ideas and concepts of persons, personhood, and personality as a philosophical, theological, psychological, social, political, historical, creative or linguistic concern.
Papers must not exceed a length of 3000 words and should be prepared for blind review. In the e-mail sent with the submission, we require the following eight items:
1. word count -3000 words maximum
2. author’s name
3. academic status (professor, unaffiliated, graduate student)
4. institutional affiliation (if any)
5. mailing address
6. e-mail address
7. the paper s title
8. an abstract -200 words maximum

Submission deadline for abstracts is MAY 25th, 2015. Abstracts will be accepted on that date, with full texts of paper due by July 1.

Submissions which do not include items 2-8 (if only abstract is being submitted) will be disqualified. Word count is due when full paper is submitted. No more than one submission by the same author will be considered.

Email as an attachment a copy of your paper and/or abstract in rich text format to:

Papers and/or abstracts will be reviewed by a committee. Notification of acceptance will be made via email in early June.

COMMENTATORS: Each paper will have a commentator. Those interested in commenting should send a note to by May 25th detailing availability and areas of interest. Persons whose papers are accepted will be expected to serve as commentators, if asked.

Copies of papers will be available by July 1st. Emails of authors will also be available for purposes of sending your commentary in advance of the conference.

CONFERENCE WEBSITE: For updates and information, visit our website:

REGISTRATION: from noon on Mon. August 3rd. Further details about meals, schedules, and conference fees will be provided as they become available.

That concludes this Very Important Announcement. . We return you now to the previous interruption of normal service. Interruption resuming in 5… 4… 3…

Monday, 27 April 2015

Conference Report: British Personalist Forum International Conference 2015; Episode 1

We interrupt our usual, if somewhat irregular, service to bring you this 17 part report from the 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference.  Temporarily fleeing 14th Century Ireland, our fearless correspondent returned, all too briefly, to attend this two-day event, which was generously supported by the British Society for the History of Philosophy.

Conference Report:
British Personalist Forum International Conference
18th - 19th March 2015, Oriel College, Oxford

Episode 1: The Golden Dawn of a New Republic
What a bright blue and brilliant sunshine morning that Wednesday morning was.  Bright blue, celestial blue, blue as ol’ Blue Eyes blue eyes; a green-spring sunshine smiling day specially made, or so it seemed, for those of us making our way to Oxford for the 2015 BPF conference.  From the four corners of the earth we came but mostly England.  Some of the finest scholars the world has ever known foregathered there, great minds all; also the usual crowd of loafers, loungers, and barflies.
     We came to do philosophy, which is as good a thing as any to do in Oxford in the springtime; and do it we did.
     We came, moreover, to see one another; old friends and new, well met all; we came to share ideas, to lark about and generally make a nuisance of ourselves.  All these we did likewise and with considerable vim.
     Richard Allen was, in every way, the founder of our intellectual feast.  More than a little gratitude is owed him for his efforts in bringing everyone together and providing us with such a fine space -- physical and personal -- in which to assemble.  Thanks are also due to the British Society for the History of Philosophy for the financial support, which enabled us to stage the whole thing in the first place.

     And thanks to Oriel College for hosting us? Indeed, though somewhat grudgingly, perhaps.  The college, it turns out, is something of a dump; not a full-scale crap-hole but certainly crummy.  For accommodation, we were supplied with grim student digs.  Dandruff flakes of grey-pink plaster stirred restlessly in drifts about a carpet of curious shade.  A grimy bathroom aroused strange, dark, half-memories of horrors unnameable and, God protect us, unthinkable.  The beds, low-slung and squat, clung to the carpet of curious shade with stumpy legs, reminding me thereby of my relations.  Upon them -- the beds, not the relations – lay several weirdly fine and diaphanous objects which turned out to be mattress, pillow, and blanket.  All in all, the perfect setting for a suicide.
     Dinner, served in the main hall, was not quite that.  And nor, fortunately, was it precisely inedible, although it did leave one thinking enviously of the survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.  Should any of those antediluvian comedians who once specialised in the Classic British Rail Buffet Car Joke care to visit Oriel, they will no doubt find sufficient material for a ‘comeback’ tour; along with a considerable quantity of shoe leather.  

Example of Classic British Rail Buffet Car Joke 1:
BR Buffet Car Waiter: Would sir like a traditional British Rail Pork Pie?
BR Buffet Car Customer: Is it fresh?
BR Buffet Car Waiter: I don’t know but the ingredients are written in Aramaic.

     On applying the Sheffield steel, I could not but wonder whether this was the prelude to a visit from Inspector Morse on some deadly gastrointestinal investigation, or to the greasy kebab van (Abra-Kebabra) parked outside the college; quite possibly, the same thing.  Fortunately, I was sat next to James T. Beauregard, he of the lantern jaw and rugged pizza-dough recipe.  A fine fellow indeed, who encouraged me to drink more stomach-cleansing red wine (Château Oriel) than might otherwise have been advisable. In this case it was entirely necessary.

But more on this later.

Example of Classic British Rail Buffet Car Joke 2:
BR Buffet Car Customer 1: I say, I say, I say.  This British Rail Sandwich has no nose!
BR Buffet Car Customer 2: How does it smell?
BR Buffet Car Customer 1: Like post-war economic decline, rising unemployment, and the unions gaining a stranglehold on the government! And asbestos!

     The conference itself, which is all any of us were really interested in, was a great success in every way imaginable.  A very fine collection of papers was presented to a crowd eager with anticipation and positively thrumming with excitement.  Brows were furrowed, heads were scratched, and notes were scribbled.  We were, as James B. would say, one giant ear.  No sooner had the speakers gasped their last syllable than discussion and debate flowed most energetically -- on one occasion, almost excessively so -- as we giant ears opened our big mouths and jumped in with both feet.   
     The conference theme, should any of you be unaware (for shame), concerned the contribution of British philosophers to the Personalist tradition.  The resulting haul was excellent; so good, in fact, that there wasn’t room for all and a number of first-class papers had to be turned down. Fortunately for us all, we expect to be able to bring you some of those in the next few issues of Appraisal.  Abigail Klassen‘s analysis of Galen Strawson on the “self”, which appears in the Spring Issue, is a prime example; and there are more to come.
     Of those that made the conference ‘cut’, the usual suspects -- Farrer, Macmurray, and Polanyi -- were well represented.  Fearlessly, David Treanor, James Beauregard, Tihamer Margitay, Endre Nagy, and, of course, myself stepped forward to do our duty.  As one would expect, Collingwood and Kolnai also made their appearance; the former presented by Anna Castriota, the latter by Elizabeth Drummond Young.  Thanks to Francesca Norman, John Gibbins, and Richard, a few new names were also brought to the table; names such as H. L. Mansel, John Grote, and W. R. Sorely, for example.  Personally, as it were, I was delighted to see Stuart Hampshire and P. F. Strawson represented by Karl Simms and Charles Conti respectively.  I cut my philosophical teeth on Hampshire and Strawson thanks, as it happens, to Charles.  Their anti-Cartesian conception of the “self” as physically embodied, socially embedded, was the ladder I climbed to reach the difficult and subtle heights of Farrer’s Finite and Infinite.
     All of these, however, we shall return to over the remaining 34 instalments.  

     Most important of all, of course, the cup of friendship was filled many times and passed freely among us.  Fortunately, a number of those who swigged that cup drank deep enough to let themselves be persuaded to join the BPF and pay real money for the privilege of doing so.  All such new members are very welcome, not least because their contributions mean that we shall not be forced to embezzle money from St. Anna Glypta’s Orphanage again this year.  On behalf of the BPF Committee and the orphans, you have our sincerest gratitude.
     Among those new members, Anna Castriota and Benjamin Bacle deserve special mention as they have agreed to join the committee; Anna as secretary taking over from Mark Arnold. Benjamin, who arrived in the guise of innocent bystander, was warned of the likely consequences.  That he succumbed and took the ‘King’s Shilling’ is his own fault and none other’s.  Likewise, David Treanor has also joined the committee and now represents the Southern Hemisphere (second-best hemisphere there is).
     Another successful, and most noteworthy, coup on the recruitment front, was our acquisition of a president.  Thanks to the sterling efforts of our charming and persuasive chairman, Alan Ford, Raymond Tallis made the leap from keynote speaker to Big Cheese.  The title is, for the moment, purely honorary, which means Ray will not have access to the launch codes for any nuclear arsenals and cannot declare war on other countries or philosophical societies (for now; so just watch it, Macmurray Fellowship).  Nevertheless if all goes to plan, you may expect to see the town halls of Great Britain adorned with giant posters of Prof. Tallis, while members of the BPF, dressed in alarmingly smart uniforms, march through the streets.   

¡Viva El Presidente! ¡Viva La Revolución!

     Needless to say, Ray doesn’t know anything about this yet.

     This concludes the first in our new 25 part series: The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report, the remainder of this episode having been redacted for security reasons.  We hope you will join us again during the next few weeks for the remaining parts 2 to 34.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Ask a Silly Question Part II: Nil Unum Ad Ignorantiam

Fortunately for all concerned, Skin-the-Cat has greater fortitude and more available thighs than previously supposed.  I am, as a result able to continue our last conversation almost as speedily as those milky white and powerful limbs can be scanned into a computer and posted.
     We were discussing, if you turn back to a previous thigh, some supposedly simple things; I had got as far as one.  This list is worth continuing, at least as far as two or three, possibly even four, not least because it is in such matters that the fundamental differences between personalism and other forms of philosophical speculation are to be found.

     To continue, therefore, upon the next thigh, with...

2) Knowledge
     This is an old philosophical saw, but I don’t know that it has ever been satisfactorily answered.  Correct me if I’m wrong; please do, it would be a great help. However, the standard Gettier-type formula which says knowledge is justified true belief has never seemed very satisfactory to me.  For one thing, it raises more questions than it answers, not least in terms of what is meant by the three supposedly explanatory constructs.
     Justification may not be entirely subjective but it will have a distinctively perspectival, because purposeful, dimension to it.  As hard boiled L. A. gumshoe and Elizabethan poet, Philip Marlow, once said, ‘evidence is all about how you look at things and who’s neck is in the noose.’   The same, more or less, goes for justification.  It all depends on what you’re trying to do to whom and who you’re trying to convince that it’s right to do it.

     The tattooist just asked me whether it makes any difference if it’s the old logical justification we’re about. It does not.
     Apart from anything else, logical justification will hardly cut the Coleman’s when it comes to the vast majority of things we claim to know, including the many that, as Polanyi reminds us, we only know tacitly.  We might also assert, with some justification (as it were), that all real knowledge is practical and so, ultimately, will out-run logical analysis.  However, and in less confrontational tones (the man has a needle poised over the groin of my friend), even if we exclude the tacit and the practical and seek only to justify logical constructions, we are not, I hope going to start pretending that logic is eternal and unchanging.  Logic, lest we forget, is a function of language; and language, its logics, and its justificatory procedures are activities undertaken by persons for specific purposes.
     But the look on Skin-the-Cat’s face entreats me not to get side-tracked.  As regards truth and belief, I shall limit myself to observing that it is not particularly clear what they mean either.  Is truth a matter of correspondence between propositions and states of affairs, as philosophers once insisted?   I shouldn’t think so.  Something a touch more constructive might be more useful; more capable, that is, of accommodating the role we play in seeking and finding.  At the very least.
     As for belief, someone once told me that belief is an attitude, quite possibly a propositional one, that we take towards some object external to us.  Well, that rather nicely misses the point.  If the belief we are talking about is religious (it was) then the object is actually a subject and it’s difficult to see how a Sovereign Will, as Farrer called it, expressed through creation and providence could be external to us.  More importantly, perhaps, talk of attitudes, propositional or otherwise, hardly captures the real meaning of the term ‘belief’.  Surely, it’s not enough to simply adopt an attitude towards the divine; don’t I have to do something?  Something like understanding and attempting to practise the tenets and creeds of the religion I claim to confess, for example.
     You will not, I imagine, be surprised by the general direction of my thinking on this subject.  An ‘activist’ or ‘interactionist’ epistemology – grounded, as ever, in Farrer, Feuerbach, Hampshire, et al. – seems like the right way to go.  Knowledge is acquired through active exploration; what’s more, Farrer observed, we can hardly be said to know something unless we can do something about it.   Knowledge arises from interference and issues in control.  This is why, many many years ago (before the world had heard of snow), Charles Conti described knowledge as an honorific. It is earned through our activities.

     All of which might lead one to wonder whether knowledge can be objective.  That, however, is a question that will have to wait, for Skin-the-Cat has turned out to be much less invincible than once supposed.  The poor fellow is sadly hors d’oeuvre; fainted dead away.  This may be a result of my insisting that the scribe spell ‘interactionist’ correctly or it may be due to some hitherto unknown weakness of constitution on the part of our hairy tabula.  The tattooist claims to have a cure.  Not holy water and the sign of the cross but a bottle of clear liquid with a curiously powerful smell of antifreeze coming off it.  We shall apply the cure orally and see what happens.  You may expect a report in due course.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Ask a Silly Question Part I: Ignorantia Quidem Philosophiam Loquax

It seems those modren technologies of telecommunication continue to evade both myself and the national telecoms provider.  I do not, as they say in Dee Local (not, I assure you, a made up name), have a bit of the internet on me.  Yet again, old Skin-the-Cat has come through; this time by posing as a stag party bound for old Königsberg.  From there, overland, by train and camel sledge (simultaneously) to Bishkek; and then on to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park in Outer-feckin’-Mongolia, where, I am told, they have no trouble whatsoever switching on a feckin’ broadband line.
     At least I’m getting a grip on the language.

     Once more, with a deep and calming inhalation of fresh country air; very fresh, very ripe.  Talking about the point and purpose of philosophy, as we were, set me thinking about some of the peculiarities of the discipline.  One particular peculiarity, considering philosophy is supposed to help us grow up, is that, unlike most subjects, the more one studies philosophy, the less one actually knows.  Of course, one of the great advantages of studying Philosophy is that one becomes painfully aware of how little everyone else knows too.
     At least we’re all in the same boat.

     I first realised this a few years ago, when I was learning to drive.  (I am a ‘late developer’; hence the youthful bloom of my complexion and idealistic sparkle in my eye).  I remember telling my driving instructor, Trevor, that by the time I was half way through my D.Phil. I knew almost nothing.  He was a bit surprised at this.  After all, he pointed out, the University of Sussex was charging me the better part of £4k a year for the privilege of expanding my ignorance.  Nevertheless, as long as I knew how to reverse around corners and not to run over pedestrians, he would be reasonably happy.  And at £15 per hour, such knowledge was unquestionably a bargain.
     Given this, it occurred to me that this re-beginning would be the perfect opportunity to go back to basics likewise.  I thought, that is, it might worth our while to briefly consider some of the simpler things in our philosophical lives, things which we – even, or especially, such as we – tend to think we understand quite clearly.  The question is, do we really?  The simple things I have in mind are often not very carefully considered by philosophy as done in the dominant rationalist-cum-realist mode; though they are written about extensively for sure.   More importantly, perhaps, it is in the basics – if that is what these are – that personalist thinkers begin to diverge most radically from that mode.

     What simple things are these, then? Let us see.

1) What do we actually mean when we talk about ‘experience’?
John Locke and David Hume were never, to my mind, entirely clear about what they meant, despite all that complicated business with the ideas and the impressions and so on.  So what is experience?  Does what happens in the classroom count?  I should say ‘yes’; but as what?  Certainly of personal interaction and the development of consciousness; of doing philosophy too, if the teacher is any good.  But what if the topic under discussion is not consciousness and its extensions?  (Though, in fact, whatever the ostensible topic, philosophy is always about consciousness and its extensions, just as it is, perhaps, always about God.)  What, for example, if a class concerns the ‘real’ world and our knowledge of it?   Does it count as experience then?
     That, I suppose, depends on what you believe reality is made of: rocks and trees and other things, as most philosophers seem to believe, or persons – people – and their interrelations.  One might suppose that there are, in fact, two kinds of experience: the kind philosophers talk about, which, curiously, seems to be almost purely theoretical, and the kind people have, which often seems to be something else entirely.
     Anyone who knows me will also know that my view is influenced by pragmatic thinkers: Farrer, Feuerbach, William James, and the like.  Thanks to a recent suggestion by Tom Buford, I might tentatively add Bordon Parker Bowne to the list.
     Consequently, to say what experience is not is quite straightforward.  Experience is not simply objective observation, as the expression is commonly understood, or passive perception.  By itself, perception is too thin to take the experiencing individual very far.  Perception provides access to appearances, nothing more; it carries no criteria by which fantasy may be distinguished from reality.  You would not, after all, believe what a politician said just because he or she said it; why would you do so with any other bit of ‘reality’?  Moreover, what something looks like, as Stuart Hampshire once noted, is never conclusive evidence for what that thing really is.  Never conclusive and, for anyone who has ever watched television or patronised the kinema, frequently not even very good. There are, as a matter of fact, relatively few bloodthirsty murders in the English countryside, for example.
     But now, perhaps, I am confusing ‘experience’ with the knowledge gained from experience; or at least epistemically valuable experience with experience of little epistemic use.   For to see something is surely to have an experience.
      It is, of course.
     The point, however, is not that perception or observation are not forms of experience, but rather, that they are neither passive nor objective in the usual sense.  Perceivers do not simply find themselves perceiving things, whatever things happens to be in front of them.  Locke’s flattened blank-slate psychology won’t do; experience is not inscribed upon the unresisting mind. At the very least, we must put ourselves in the position to perceive, arrange the circumstances of our observations, as every inquiring mind knows perfectly well.  The scientist – paradigm of experiencing agent – observes the experiments, the active interferences, that he or she undertakes.
     In short, what we do is the key; intentional action, or rather interaction, is the truer measure of experience and its objects.  Impact, conscious, physical impact, is epistemically enriching; actually informative and therefore the better and more genuine form of experience.  Impact is all; when dealing with politicians, this is doubly true.
     And then, speaking of scientists, there are the philosophical implications of Schrödinger’s Cat.

–– Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.
–– Stupid yourself, said the cat, blinking up out of her avid shameclosing eyes. It’s the box with the photon emitter and and the poison gas pellet that worries me.

     As an approach to pet-care, it may leave a lot to be desired; another good reason for Schrödinger not following his first love in animal husbandry.  It does suggest, however, that observation may well change the thing observed.   So acts, as Charles Conti trenchantly puts it, become facts.

     I have hardly started my list of ‘simple things’, but for the sake of him who is to smuggle this missive out, tattooed across his inner thigh, I have promised to keep it short.   Under the shadow of the tattooist’s bigly-bored needle, he will, I suppose, endeavour to do likewise.

     For the moment, then, we shall leave the subject there. I would, as ever, be pleased indeed to have your views on what has gone before.  Should you care to communicate them, please feel free to do so.