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Posts from the ‘philosophy’ Category

Preposterous Science

December 3rd, 2012

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This article about a fascinating piece of ‘academic research’ (that was published in a bonafide journal, somehow!) should be grist to the mill of any good Theory of Knowledge or A-Level Philosophy course.

Chocolate consumption and Nobel Prizes.

Divergent Thinking and Standardisation

March 6th, 2011

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More or less, this is what I think, too.

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.

“minus” and “negative”

December 24th, 2008

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In the past I have commented on the QI forums that the difference between “negative” and “minus” was a good one and worth keeping*. I didn’t mean it to come across as self-congratulatory psuedo-intellectualism, though I’m aware that this is how it might have come across.

Listening to Stephen Fry’s ‘podgram’ on language, it appears that Mr Fry does not agree that pointing out the difference between “less” and “fewer” is worthwhile. To him, sadly, I am a pedant, attempting to impose a sort of lingustic-conservativism on the world.

Frustratingly, I agree with the majority of what Mr Fry discusses in his podgram; which is that language is a rapidly changing thing, and that what is aberrant in one generation will become established in another. Obliquely he suggests that language is ‘evolving’ though I am scared off that word having read John Gray‘s Straw Dogs, and I think rightly so. The problem with calling something ‘evolving’ is that it somehow implies progress, and I do not think that this is the case for language all of the time.

My reason for believing that “minus” and “negative” should be more clearly demarcated in language is really for its utility in mathematics classrooms, and it is there where I believe the demarcation should be expressed and preserved. There are two separate concepts here: one an operation over two numbers to express (as a directed number) the difference between the two numbers; the other to express the direction of a number, ie whether postive or negative. They are difficult ideas, to be teased out. We tease them out poorly, and need to improve. They would be teased out more successfully if their use wasn’t so interchangeable.

If I am right, then the interchangability of “minus 5” and “negative 5” should not be considered part of the great evolution of language. Wittgenstein is right to an extent, when he claimed that the limits of my language are the limits of my world, and if I lose the ability to use two words for two separate concepts, I lose the ability to differentiate the concepts.

I do not wish to be a pedant, but I think that linguistic conservativism is the bathwater to a good many conceptual babies whose protection is worthwhile.

John Gray – An Appreciation

July 27th, 2008

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My dad taught Philosophy and Sociology all of his professional life, and in his retirement continues to study and think about these subjects. He recently gave a talk about the work of John Gray to the Erasmus Darwin Society in Lichfield, Staffordshire.

John Gray is currently Professor of European Thought at the LSE, and has been an outspoken and controversial academic throughout his career. He has written about a great breadth of topics, but the thread of thought that ties his work together is his rejection of our contemporary belief in the progress of mankind.

The prepared text of my dad’s overview of Gray’s views is an excellent introductory text, with a good bibliography pointing towards further reading. I would strongly recommend this text to students as an overview of his thought.

John Gray, An Appreciation

The Minimax Principle at KS2 & KS3

September 20th, 2007

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Scientific-Computing.Com’s recent blog articles "Beyond the Prisoner’s Dilemma" and "Global warming and the Prisoner’s Dilemma" are interesting examples of using the logical structures of game theory as starting points for logical thought at younger levels.

The blog conversation starts with the big environmental issue of global warming and this friendly video where the protagonist explains the application of minimax to the global warming debate. He argues, in a nutshell, that given uncertain future consequences of humanity’s impact on the planet, and given also a choice of decisions about how to act against those potential consequences, it makes the most logical sense to exclude the catastrophic choice of doing nothing to prevent global warming by acting as if global warming were a certainty.

I like how the minimax principle here facilitates students’ understanding by offering a powerful structure for considering different possibilities. Because minimax is so clearly structured and relatively easy to grasp, it is the sort of idea, like the Venn Diagram, which ought to be a constantly recurring feature of students’ education. In Mathematics, it bears close resemblance to the Carroll diagram, which is a similarly undervalued structure for understanding issues.

The German Ideology

May 16th, 2007

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Some years ago my dad Alan McEachran – a teacher of Philosophy for over 25 years – wrote a few students guides to classic texts. His precis of The German Ideology in modern English is perfect as a primer to the text, and I’ve published it here for posterity and in the hope that students of this important text might find it useful.

The German Ideology

Reith Lectures 2007

May 8th, 2007

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Combining morality, economics and politics, Jeffry Sachs discusses our global future and humanity’s survival.

This might be a bit beyond sixth-form students – it may be a bit beyond you or I, for that matter – but what reason for teaching students how to think critically can there be that is more important than the hope that they can think critically about these issues?

It is compelling to listen someone with such a depth of understanding of our global state of affairs to give an optimistic view of the future.

Listen to the Reith Lectures by clicking here