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Mary Midgley

September 23rd, 2009

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Mary Midgley was born on September 13, 1919 and was the Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Newcastle University. Despite publishing her first book at the age of 59, she has a fearsome reputation in the Philosophical community. Her work has largely focussed on science; attacking the pretensions of ‘scientism‘, and arguing in favour of scientific pluralism; that we must recognise “that there are many independent forms and sources of knowledge” (Myths We Live By, pp 26-7).

Famously, she and Richard Dawkins have had a thirty-year disagreement. Midgley argues that Dawkins goes beyond the scientific to sell “the worship of competition”; that he projects Thatcherite free-market economic beliefs into his theoris of evolutionary biology; a charge which Dawkins disputes!

In May 2009, my dad Alan McEachran, who has taught Philosophy and Sociology all of his professional life, gave a talk about the work of Mary Midgley to the Erasmus Darwin Society in Lichfield, Staffordshire. The prepared text for this talk follows:

Mary Midgley, by Alan McEachran

This is the second talk that he has given to the Erasmus Darwin Society. His discussion of John Gray is also available from this website.

Book Review: Plato’s Shadow

September 18th, 2009

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Neel Burton, Plato’s Shadow – A Primer On Plato

Academic texts try to appeal to specific readerships. Though Plato’s Shadow has merit, this reviewer is left wondering who it was written for. It works best as a reference book of sorts, since it contains easily-read summaries, each of between two and twenty pages, of all Plato’s dialogues. Each précis is faithful to the original text and provides the reader who is unfamiliar with any dialogue a clear account of what is to be found there. The author also devotes the first forty pages to a useful account of the historical context of Athens and its relations with other city-states, and to a discussion of Pre-Socratic Greek thought and the place of Socrates in the dialogues which follow. A final introductory chapter also looks at scholarly views of when Plato’s works were written, in what sequence, and with what connection to each other.

A student encountering Plato on a Philosophy or a Classics course would undoubtedly benefit from having this book to reach for as a preliminary step before reading one of the dialogues for the first time. A general reader would also find this a useful reference book because of the way it treats each dialogue separately – something you don’t usually find in such a short and accessible paperback.

However, to call this “A Primer On Plato”, as the author does, is misleading. Anyone trying to understand Plato’s thought won’t find much help here. Nothing is done to point the reader to where Plato is specifically exploring metaphysical, ethical, epistemological, political, etc. themes. This book cries out for an index; both the student and the general reader are likely to want help in finding where Plato talks about The Sun Metaphor, or Forms, or Diotima. The occasional attempt is made to enhance understanding by the use of an illustration; this makes most sense in the Meno and Republic dialogues, though in the latter it is The Cave which is illustrated rather than The Divided Line, which almost every other book about Plato rightly and helpfully presents as a diagram.

This text is a welcome addition to a shelf of reference books, but it shouldn’t be seen as a general introduction to Plato’s thought.

Linguistic Ambiguity and Ignorant Journalists

September 2nd, 2009

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Even BBC Radio 4 journalists are unable to recognise the distinction between the following sentences:

  • I do not want Megrahi to die in prison;
  • I want Megrahi not to die in prison.

There ought to be a clear distinction between the intention of the speaker in the two cases: the first does not necessarily convey any intention, while the second takes a clear intentional stance.

On BBC Radio 4 this morning, a five minute interview went frustratingly round in circles because neither the Foreign Secretary nor the interviewer could satisfactorily explain this distinction.

We often use the first form of the sentence when we mean the second, and this linguistic ambiguity was siezed upon in a piece of journalistic opportunisim. Bill Rammel was asked a question about whether the UK government ‘wanted Megrahi to die in prison’. He responded that they did not. The question asked about whether an intention existed; he replied that it did not. He was not asked, nor responded to whether there was the converse intention; he was not asked “Does the UK government want Megrahi to be released from prison before he dies?”, but it is now widely reported that he confirmed exactly that.

Increasingly, it seems that journalists exploit these linguistic ambiguities in order to create a story. No wonder politicians (of every persuasion – I am ambivalent with respect to the different parties) are so careful when asked ‘clear yes and no questions’ and sometimes simply repeat a well-rehearsed phrase. When they are misrepresented so wholly as in this case, can you really blame them?

When they occur, these stories are good opportunities to highlight the ambiguity of language and the care with which language needs to be used to sixth-form philosophy students. It is perhaps the most important practical application of learning philosophy that its students can be forewarned against the pitfalls of such exploitative misrepresentation.