Sunday, 25 February 2018

Ethics: Not Just a River in Egypt

by Simon Smith

It is, perhaps, in the nature of modern academia for fields of study to continually divide and subdivide into increasingly narrow areas of specialisation, though it does seem a mite peculiar. Specialisation in the sciences is, of course, perfectly proper. Given that the classification of things into things-of-a-certain-kind is not prefigured in or by the things themselves, the process is, in principle at least, an indefinite one. There can be no single level of classification – or system of classification, for that matter – which can be designated as the ultimate, final, or real one. Any limits we encounter mark the limits of our tools and our interests, not of our world nor, nota bene, our abilities. Otherwise put, there is, as someone once said, always so much to know in this old world.
One might fairly suppose that philosophy doesn’t quite work like that. One might even think that philosophy is meant to offer an insight into the very nature of existence, into being (whatever that means), the fundamental nature of things or experience. Something like that, anyway.
Consider, for example, the Metaphysics of Science: a divisional heading which manages to be overly specific while still remaining altogether nebulous. Not that there’s anything wrong with attempting to articulate, explicitly, the metaphysics which underpins scientific thought, although it might help to specify which science, in particular, we’re talking about. There are so many of them these days and there are sure to be differences. Nevertheless, digging beneath the surface of a scientist’s professed beliefs to get to the chewy metaphysics underneath seems like a perfectly useful occupation. But the whole point of metaphysics is to grapple with the nature of reality or being per se. To do metaphysics is to attempt to draw the biggest possible picture of existence, to say “this – this, is what reality is really like beneath all the maps and diagrams and descriptions and discourses. This is IT.” Whether we really can peak beneath the maps and diagrams is a moot point, of course. Whether any one particular way of mapping and describing the universe can have it’s own particular peak beneath the maps, its very own “big picture”, is, perhaps, not. If metaphysics is a meaningful pursuit – granted the size of that “if” – then surely its findings will apply to all actual and possible ways of looking at the universe. If, on the other hand, we are isolating different metaphysics-es, different types of fundamental reality, then perhaps we ought to give up using the term “metaphysics”; or at least have the decency to quarantine it within ironic scare-quotes.
Under the circumstances, one might be forgiven for thinking that all the subdivisions and specialisations of academic philosophy seem rather redundant; the sort of thing an increasingly desperate discipline might resort to in order to demonstrate its relevance and importance long after its expiration date.
Any such supposition would, however, be entirely unwarranted, a baseless calumny of the worst kind, in fact. If there is a whiff of sour milk or mouldy cheese lingering about the hallowed halls of academic philosophy, it is, I am certain, to be laid at the feet of the practitioners rather than the practice.
Ethics is particularly active in this area, however. The subdivisions, that is, not the whiff. At least, not just the whiff. One hardly need turn one’s back and ethics to start subdividing like an amoeba at an orgy.
Once upon a time, it all seemed quite simple. There was talk about right and wrong and there was talk about talk about right and wrong. Then, at some point, talk about the application of right and wrong came along and that was fine too. Somewhere along this trail, I was disabused of my illusions regarding these supposedly different fields by one of the great American personalist philosophers: namely, Thomas O. Buford.
I met Tom at a conference in Nottingham, England, not long after I’d finished my D.Phil. We had a mutual friend in my supervisor, Charles Conti, and Tom was gracious enough to show an interest in what the last doctoral student of his old friend was up to. I was, I told him, teaching Applied Ethics at the University of Southampton. Somewhat bemused, Tom laid a kindly hand upon my shoulder and asked, “what kind of ethics is it that isn’t applied?” Well, that put the tin hat on it. Obviously, I realised, any attempt to make sense of how we conduct our relations with others must, somewhere along the line, have its point of application. Without that, why bother? Rules in theory, abstracted from actual practice, aren’t worth the penguin they’re written on. 
Just how much of the West’s ethical cannon will find itself blowing out its back end in the face of such fearfully stringent criteria, let the reader judge for him or herself.
Despite the evident sense of this, fragmentation and specialisation continues unabated. In addition to Applied Ethics, my own list of teaching includes Business Ethics, Personal and Professional Ethics (no, I’m not entirely sure what the difference is either), and Ethics and the Computer. All these courses, I taught at the same time and with very little difference between them. The context was (occasionally, fractionally) different; the reasoning was not. Surprisingly, whether one is in the bedroom or the boardroom, the basic questions never change.
The bedroom? Oh yes. I once had to deliver a lecture on sex and ethics. It was, I suppose, very much as awful as you would imagine lecturing on sex and ethics to sixty first-year undergraduates would be, only rather worse.
And as that particular memory of ghastly mortification sinks, bubbling and gurgling, below the black and glistening surface of the mind, I find myself in need of a quiet lie down in a darkened room where I can shudder and shiver in peace. We shall return to the matter in hand once the mechanisms of an emotionally repressive upbringing have done their work.
……Dear God! The hand gestures! I’d forgotten about the hand gestures!

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

British Personalist Forum: Workshop Announcement


SATURDAY MARCH 24th, 10.00 to 4.30.


ROOM 307, The BOOTS library

Drinks and snacks will be available in the cafĂ©  in the library.

This Workshop is designed primarily for undergraduate and postgraduate students but everyone is welcome.
Would all who wish to attend please contact us at uk by  March 20th so that we can arrange the seating.



10-10.30         Registration and welcome;
10.30-12.30    Four 30 min. sessions, each of 15 mins for a short paper, and 15 mins for discussion;
12.30-1.30      Lunch
1.30- 3.30       Four 30 min. sessions, as before.
3.30-4.30        Short break followed by General Discussion and Close.


Preference will be given to submissions by students. We also prefer speakers’ own thoughts about their chosen topics, or at least critical accounts of work by others with positive alternatives to any negative ones.
Papers should be about 1000-1500 max. words long.

The deadline for submission of papers is 12 noon, Friday March 16th Please send them to

some Suggestions for topics

The role and value of persons in:
          Utilitarianism or other Consequentialisms,
          Kant’s ethics,
          situation ethics and moral particularism,
          virtue ethics,
          individualism or collectivism,
          or any other system of ethics.
What aspects of persons are morally significant?
The choice of either egoism or altruism.
 Justice and persons.

For more about Personalism go to and follow the links.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Ideological Entrainment vs Interventional Possibility in Brain Disease

by Denis Larrivee

Growing up in an era of rapid scientific advance it is possible to see the currents and ebbs that mark preferred ways of thinking in a way that cannot be captured post-hoc about older eras. Yet it is also a characteristic of this kind of personal intimacy that the dominance of its principal tenets makes the masking of idea rivulets barely perceptible. Cases in point are themes now emerging from the neuroscientific groundswell that has reached decibels not heard since the Concorde’s sonic booms. Cellular levels of nerve understanding that were its first love now comprise but a small fraction of the knowledge since accumulated, which has grown to include global state interactions, tasking networks, dynamical activity patterns, and large-scale circuits, just to name several. For one of these themes, the working out of underlying mechanisms of brain diseases, the newly accumulated knowledge has assisted not only in sketching a panorama of the brain’s geographical terrain, but it has also acted as a springboard for investigative strategies intended to unravel the complexities of its operation gone awry. A leading premise that underpins much of this latter work, and frequently expressed by former director of NIMH Tom Insel, is that of disease modified circuit architectures. In this manner of thinking normal brain operation is structured by information flow along defined paths of transmission analogous to electrical circuits; hence, brain diseases, as seen by this model, are as the result of inexact, incorrect, or deficient manners of forming these routes. For example, OCD behaviors are thought to be the result of circuit rewiring in striatal - as you may guess - nerve circuits
     Influenced by this conception, and developing in parallel with strategies for approaching circuit based, disease models, is an extensive and expanding research domain that is devoted to characterizing neural network operation. Networks, by way of explanation, are the background frameworks on which the individual circuits are situated.   The evolution of the network and circuit based research enterprise that is directed to disease study is illustrative for the way in which a battery of widely differing experimental technologies can be entrained to focus on a single, powerful, conceptual image to elucidate the details that structure the concept. However, it is also illustrative of how the power of a single image of brain operation can so entrain the process of hypothesis construction that avenues to other explanatory visions may be shielded from discovery. Thus, it is also a testimony to the ever-receding geographical horizon of brain complexity, or in the cosmic metaphors of the director of Paris’s Brain and Spine Institute, Yves Agid, more like that of galactic intervals, that needs to become amenable to characterization in order to yield fruitful forms of neurological intervention for brain disease therapy. Something of this discrepancy between the knowledge gleaned in early stages of neuroscience with its limited relevance to medical intervention, and the receding horizon of therapeutic goal setting, is now seen in treatments intended to minister to the patient who exhibits some form of conscious impairment. Conscious impairment is increasing in prevalence, and it is, therefore, highly desirable to have treatment options. Among other factors affecting this situation, improved emergency room care and life-saving technologies have increased the survival rate of patients who experienced an incident of brain damage. Such patients may and often do become comatose, a condition predisposed by stroke. Coupled with population demographics that are trending grayward, the improved medical scenario thus portends a distinct upward swing in the incidence of this type of brain disease.
It is at this level of assessment, however, where the current methodological and technological approaches not only show the great amount of knowledge that has been accumulated, with its improved understanding that may be used to better patient oversight, but where also the sort of information provided offers still just a little glimmer of the physical features that contribute to patient status; hence, where the challenge to the prevailing, politically correct science, arises. It thus reveals a horizon yet to be reached at a conceptual level with regard to patient physiology, and at a clinical level with regard to determining the salient features needed in order to therapeutically intervene. These current methods now largely used for consciousness assessments, for example, no longer rely predominantly on behavioral monitoring, instead turning to imaging technologies that make it possible to make objective inferences that may complement behavioral assessments. Their objective reliability thus offers to the physician the opportunity for a presumed closer correspondence to patient status than might be availed from a patient either incapable of knowing, communicating, or of reliably assessing – and perhaps even being liminally influenced by – physician monitoring. Yet their improved insight into status also metaphorically replicates the consciousness paradigm that is awaiting the next upward stage in its trajectory.
Despite significant advances in the ability to assess consciously impaired patients, however, the parameters actually monitored by these technologies do not directly reveal information that is salient with regard to consciousness, particularly the patient’s sense of awareness. This latter remains a distant horizon for objective inferences diagnostically and prognostically. It is with the intention of managing the semantic content to be inferred from brain activity, as opposed to simple inferences about brain state activation, that even more qualitatively new ground has been explored to elucidate what brain states actually mean. These additional approaches have yet to see entry into the medical setting as viable medical devices or device/approaches. Nonetheless they afford the prospectus for revealing distinguishing features of brain activity patterns that can be correlated with objective features of the world. For the consciously impaired patient these new technologies begin to offer the promise of communication at a level more closely approximating the sorts of symbolical representations that humans use to convey conceptual content to others. The answers to the questions of what the patient may be thinking, how well or poorly he is doing so, and what may be affecting this are, therefore, made more tractable than in the solely qualitative answers obtained from the current medical imaging analysis alone. These latter reveal a capacity for consciousness, while not quantitatively indicating the level at which that capacity may be used.
On the other hand, while these new technologies may offer significant qualitative advances to the physician in the type of knowledge acquired, they do relatively little to explain either the mechanism that generates the particular form of brain activity that is being classified or what information, if any, is internally activated by the patient. This gap in understanding is revealing for again opening the spectrum of explanatory possibilities to a wider and, to date, largely unidentified property scope than is encompassed by strictly neuronal features. It is likely that representations are not, for example, the exclusive province of connectivity architectures; thus, they reveal the insufficiency of the circuit model as a conceptual device for brain operation. While it is clear that connectivity organization plays a very significant role in structuring representational activity it is much less clear that such activity is structured either solely by circuits, or confined only to circuits. Existing emphases on circuit based operation, that have the effect of entraining hypothesis building around it, therefore, like limit cycle attractors, leave research impoverished with regard to insights that may be better used to charting the terrain ahead. Importantly, they reveal that there are as yet many unknown features about how the brain functions to engage our subjective sense. It is this revelation, perhaps, that is most promissory – more so even than the possibility of ever new therapies helpful for treatment of tragic personal scourges – that the human person is a special mystery always awaiting new discovery.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

New Journal and CFP: Inscriptions, Vol. 1, No. 1

Consecrations: The Philosophy of Wolfgang Schirmacher and the Passing of the Human

Inscriptions, a journal of contemporary thinking on art, philosophy, and psycho-analysis, invites contributions to our inaugural issue on consecration, the philosophy of Wolfgang Schirmacher, and the notion of passing. We are looking for well-crafted and skilfully written scholarly essays and literary contributions that engage our mandate and the theme of this issue.
Passing: to pass for someone, to pass something by, to pass away; these are senses in which the term passing can be made meaningful in our lives, and in how we approach our lives in art. In psycho-analysis hold it possible to act in such a way that the subject leaves the domain of legal competency and enter into a state where we no longer can be held accountable for our acts, as well as protocols for the end of analysis, i.e., when the analysand passes into the analyst. In philosophy the term seems particularly apt as a description of the way we move from the world of humanism to that which lies beyond it. To Wolfgang Schirmacher the notion of Homo generator serves to address the uncertainties of our epoch of modern technology. It is a form that generates human reality in a climate of artificiality and ecocide. Homo generator is a media artist promising a Dasein without a need for Being, certainty or simple notions of progress. The lighting of truth (Heidegger) promised by Homo generator is supplemented by an art of forgetting: only in this manner can the media artist’s sanity remain in place.
Homo generator gives shape to just living under the aegis of an ethic that is forgotten or hidden: “Concealed from our consciousness, humans live ethically, a good life behind our backs. Only in feelings, in fascination, satisfaction, joy, but also in mourning do we get a hint of ethical worlds” (Schirmacher, “Cloning humans with media,” 2000). As with Heidegger’s claim that the light of consciousness needs to be shielded, Schirmacher’s ethical life-worlds are at their most present when they are hidden from view. This leads to a most unexpected thesis: that which we consecrate stands out as most worthy when it is hidden.

We seek academic papers and literary interventions that address questions such as:
  • How can the term consecration make sense to art, literature, and philosophy?
  • In what way can the work of Wolfgang Schirmacher, such as his figure of Homo generator, give reality to our epoch and our lived experiences?
  • How can the term “passing” yield meaning in our approaches to art, psycho-analysis, and philosophy?

Submission instructions
  • Deadline for proposals: 15 March 2018
  • Deadline for full manuscripts: 15 April 2018

Academic essays should be 3,000 to 4,500 words. We also seek scholarship in the form of interviews, reviews, short interventions, disputations and rebuffals, and in these cases we are open to shorter texts. Inscriptions adheres to the Chicago Manual of Style (footnotes and bibliography). For other instructions, please see our website. We encourage potential authors to submit proposals for review prior to their writing/submitting entire full-length manuscripts. Include title, proposal (150 words), short biography, and institutional affiliation in your preliminary submission.

All academic submissions will undergo double-blind peer review.

Literary submissions (short and long poems, aphorisms, short fiction, fables and literary essays of up to 1800 words) will be reviewed by our fiction editor.

Submit proposals and literary fictions through our online platform at:

Torgeir Fjeld, PhD
Editor-in-Chief, Inscriptions

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Book Summary by Jeffrey M. Jackson

Nietzsche and Suffered Social Histories
Genealogy and Convalescence 


Jeffrey M. Jackson

This book presents a reading of Nietzsche as a thinker of the suffered social histories of subjectivity.  It suggests that Nietzsche’s genealogical critique of idealism needs the concept of convalescence to be coherent.  Genealogy is a form of reflection that traces the suffered scenes of which that reflection is symptomatic, whereas convalescence is the ordeal of reflection’s coming to bear its limits within scenes of embodied suffering.  Only convalescents can engage in genealogy. The term “scene” is borrowed from Freud’s appeal to infantile scenes, which shape subjectivity; the often-discussed commonality between Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche is found not in suspicion or hermeneutics, but rather in modelling the ordeal of a reflecting subject which traces its independence as a symptom of a more or less unbearable suffered historical dependence.  This theme is developed by appeals to Freud’s notion of mourning and the object relations theories of Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott, which insist on the primacy of suffered relationality in the genesis of subjectivity.   Moreover, Adorno’s notion of negative dialectics and its emphasis on the primacy of the object are suggested as an alternative context within which to read Nietzsche’s writing, in contrast with dominant modes of criticism.  From here, certain popular readings of Nietzsche are discussed: e.g. those by Kofman, Ricoeur, Foucault, Blondel, Haar, Deleuze, Derrida, etc.
Chapter One, “Convalescence, Mourning, and Sociality,” examines Nietzsche’s concept of convalescence by comparing it with the Freudian work of mourning.  In contrast with influential subjectivist readings of Nietzsche—specifically those of Derrida and Deleuze—the comparison with Freud helps to show the suffered nature of socio-historically embedded subjectivity.  For Freud, the mournful work to slowly decathect from all subtle attachments to the lost object; similarly, the convalescent undergoes a sustained labor of decathexis from ressentiment.  In his preoccupation with convalescence, Nietzsche is articulating the conditions for the possibility of the overcoming of bad culture for beings who carry the weight of that bad culture within their subjectivity.  That this salutary ordeal is conditioned by its relational context implies an imperative to transform social conditions. 
Chapter Two, “Relationality, Trauma, and the Genealogy of the Subject,” examines the first two essays of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality from the perspective of relational psychoanalysis, which insists on the genesis of human subjectivity from foundational relationships with others.  This suggests that naturalistic and other common interpretations of this text fail to do justice to the excessive, negative character of suffered social history.  Such interpretations often resort to subjectivist or quasi-metaphysical accounts of repression or instincts to explain the origins of bad conscience, for example.  Nietzsche’s position should rather be seen as proto-psychoanalytic in that his notion of bad conscience is best understood as a type of symptom, precisely because its source is not a naturalistically-conceived cause, but rather a socially-conditioned, concretely and symbolically-mediated ordeal.  This problem can be connected to passages in which Nietzsche discusses the suffered, social dimensions of shame and liberation.  Moreover, slaves’ morality is not merely a type expressive of subjective weakness, but the symptom of the unbearable history of the human animal that gave rise to subjectivity.  “Free will” is the fantasy of agency for beings who experience agency at unbearable.  On one hand this unbearable experience has material, historical dimensionality, with connections to slavery, trauma, physical weakness, sickness, etc.; on the other, it is reproduced symbolically as the basis of all meaning.  Far from ending in fatalism, this reading suggests that the path toward Nietzschean liberation leads through cultural convalescence from the weight of social—both material and symbolic—histories.
Chapter Three, “Nietzsche’s Negative Dialectics: Ascetic Ideal and Status Quo,” offers an account of Theodor Adorno’s philosophical position, which is then used to analyse various aspects of Nietzsche’s thinking.  Both thinkers interrogate the way in which the status quo is calcified within dominant forms of subjectivity—in the ascetic ideal for Nietzsche and the primacy of the subject in Adorno.  Consequently, neither thinker is merely advancing a subjectivist critique of identity—which would celebrate difference or the plurality of perspectives, for example.  Rather, they insist on the suffered objectivity of the non-identical.  In contrast to views of Nietzsche as valorizing immediacy, the body, necessity, or difference, one might see Nietzsche’s fragmentary style and critique of systems as expressions of a negative dialectics, based in the primacy of the object, in which subjectivity would trace and negotiate the suffered social histories that condition it.  From this perspective, the third essay of Nietzsche’s Genealogy—and its focus on the ascetic ideal as the basis of the modern subject—can be read as a critique of modern culture and of the philosophy that seeks liberation from that culture.
Chapter Four, “Working-through Perspectives in Nietzsche and Object Relations Psychoanalysis,” provides a reading of certain aspects of Nietzsche’s thinking with that of Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott.  For Klein, the infant begins in a primitive schizoid position from which the object (i.e. the world) is encountered as a precarious fluctuation from satisfying to persecuting, and a key developmental task in Kleinian psychoanalysis is the ability to integrate these primitive schizoid partial objects into a more holistic position.  Nietzsche’s critique of the opposition between Good and Evil, and his relating of the thought of eternal recurrence to the ability to embrace all aspects of existence can be read on this model as valorizing the integration of the nonintegrable.  Similarly, Winnicott’s concept of transitional phenomena presents a model of an environmentally-mediated ordeal of integrating subjectivity with objectivity, which is similar to Nietzsche’s account of subjectivity’s formation within suffered social scenes.  These thinkers suggest that purportedly “pure” or “independent” subjects are symptomatic of relational histories that have not gone well, and thereby need to be changed.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

New Book by Jeffrey M. Jackson

Nietzsche and Suffered Social Histories
Genealogy and Convalescence

Jeffrey M. Jackson

This book presents a reading of Nietzsche as a thinker of the suffered social histories of subjectivity.  It suggests that Nietzsche’s concept of genealogy needs the concept of convalescence to be coherent. Genealogy is a form of reflection that traces the suffered scenes of which that reflection is symptomatic, whereas convalescence is the ordeal of reflection’s coming to bear its limits within scenes of embodied suffering.  This theme is developed by appeals to Freud’s notion of mourning and the object relations theories of Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott, which insist on the primacy of suffered relationality in the genesis of subjectivity.  Moreover, Adorno’s notion of negative dialectics and its emphasis on the primacy of the object are suggested as an alternative context within which to read Nietzsche’s writing, in contrast with dominant modes of criticism.  The discussion will appeal to anyone interested in Nietzsche, critical theory and the relationship between psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Jeffrey M. Jackson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair or the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Houston—Downtown, USA.  He is the author of Philosophy and Working-through the Past: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Social Pathologies.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

New Article in Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Does the Australian National Disability Insurance Scheme 
enhance personal quality of life?
by David Treanor

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a radical paradigm shift that moves the administration, quality framework and service delivery of disability services into the economic market-place in Australia.  The NDIS is the largest government reform since the introduction of Medicare in Australia under the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s. The NDIS was introduced in 2013 and will, if the roll-out is successful, be fully operationalized by 2020. The NDIS aims to ameliorate the limitations in the prior funding and monitoring state and territory based systems and is grounded in a rhetoric of ‘person-centered’ planning.
As a personalist the author explores this notion of ‘personal-planning’ and how ‘personal’ is it? And how congruent it might be with John Macmurray personalism?  Macmurray offers critical insights into our human nature, which suggests that personal flourishing, friendships have a valued role and are integral to our nature as persons. Macmurray is perceptive in understanding who a person is, he moves beyond the focus that is emphasized of persons as mere a material or mechanistic being and argues our development is best met through a relational being who excels through interdependent relationships. The paper reveals that though the NDIS honours Australia’s commitment to it’s international responsibilities under the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), that is it has a broad personalist philosophy. Nonetheless, the analysis through a Macmurrian prism exposes the schemes shortcomings in its ability to enhance human nature of people with an intellectual disability that improves people’s quality of life. This argument follows the analysis of current data reports, as case studies, centered on the NDIS, and suggests that while the NDIS has improved some personal lives a more concentrated focus on Macmurrain human nature and relationships is more likely to support the scheme to achieve its overall objectives.