Tag Archives: Thought

The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life

In the days when Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud dominated thinking about child development, small children were thought to be irrational, incoherent, and solipsistic in their thinking and both easily distractible and unfocused in their awareness of the world. Recent work in developmental psychology offers a sharply contrasted picture. “Children are unconsciously the most rational beings on earth,” says Alison Gopnik, “brilliantly drawing accurate conclusions from data, performing complex statistical analyses, and doing clever experiments.” And not only does empirical work reveal this about babies and small children, but what is thus revealed throws light on some of philosophy’s more intriguing questions about knowledge, the self, other minds, and the basis of morality.

Such are the claims made by philosopher and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik in this fascinating account of the growth of child minds. Gopnik’s affectionate and sympathetic enjoyment of the way children think in their first five years is manifest throughout her book, but so too is her sensitivity to the deeper philosophical implications of what their way of thinking can teach us. The result is absorbing and educative. This is despite the fact that, at times, it seems as if developmental psychology provides arduous scientific confirmation for what parents and preschool teachers have always long known; but Gopnik is skilled at producing the rabbit of insight from an apparently old hat. And there is also much that is new and surprising in the field, all of it promising to change our understanding of mind in general.

Gopnik describes how imagination contributes to the vast amount of knowledge that children acquire in their first few years. Accumulated knowledge allows children to think of alternative ways that the world could be, which in turn helps them to construct mental maps of the causal relationships that govern and explain how things work. I also aids them in forming ideas about how other people think and why they act as they do. Many children have “imaginary friends”; their ability to understand others and to change themselves is aided by the possibilities for exploring alternatives that such play affords.


Boys on a Lorry, Cowcaddens, Glasgow 1958 by Roger Mayne
Photo source:


Berlusconi in Tehran

Slavoj Žižek in the LRB:

Two crucial observations follow. First, Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a corrupt Islamofascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the ayatollahs. His demagogic distribution of crumbs to the poor shouldn’t deceive us: he has the backing not only of the organs of police repression and a very Westernised PR apparatus. He is also supported by a powerful new class of Iranians who have become rich thanks to the regime’s corruption – the Revolutionary Guard is not a working-class militia, but a mega-corporation, the most powerful centre of wealth in the country.

Second, we have to draw a clear distinction between the two main candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Karroubi is, effectively, a reformist, a proponent of an Iranian version of identity politics, promising favours to particular groups of every kind. Mousavi is something entirely different: he stands for the resuscitation of the popular dream that sustained the Khomeini revolution. It was a utopian dream, but one can’t deny the genuinely utopian aspect of what was so much more than a hardline Islamist takeover. Now is the time to remember the effervescence that followed the revolution, the explosion of political and social creativity, organisational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. That this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the revolution was an authentic political event, an opening that unleashed altogether new forces of social transformation: a moment in which ‘everything seemed possible.’ What followed was a gradual closing-down of possibilities as the Islamic establishment took political control. To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the ‘return of the repressed’ of the Khomeini revolution.


Philosophy as complementary science

[P]hilosophy of science can seek to generate scientific knowledge in places where science itself fails to do so; I call this the complementary function of philosophy of science, as opposed to its descriptive and prescriptive functions. I propose taking the philosophy of science as a field which investigates scientific questions that are not addressed in current specialist science — questions that could be addressed by scientists, but are excluded due to the necessities of specialization.

A need for philosophy of science in the complementary mode, or complementary science as I will call it, arises from the fact that specialist science cannot afford to be completely open. (I speak of “specialist science” rather than “normal science”, so as not to distract those who reject Kuhn’s particular ideas about normal science or paradigms.) There are two aspects to this necessary lack of openness. First, in specialist science many elements of knowledge must be taken for granted, since they are used as foundations or tools for studying other things. This also means that certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize the taken-for-granted items of knowledge. Such are the necessities of specialist science, quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent. Second, not all worthwhile questions can be addressed in specialist science, simply because there are limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time. Each specialist scientific community will have some degree of consensus about which problems are most urgent, and also which problems can most plausibly be solved. Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected. All this is not malicious or misguided neglect, but a reasonable act of prioritization necessitated by limitations of material and intellectual resources.

All the same, we must face up to the fact that suppressed and neglected questions represent a loss of knowledge, actual and potential. The complementary function of philosophy of science is to recover and even create such questions and, hopefully, some answers to them as well. Therefore the desired result of research in philosophy of science in this mode is an enhancement of our knowledge and understanding of nature.


(For A.A. =)

Importance of elsewhere

Some time after James Baldwin arrived in Istanbul he settled in Gumussuyu, a neighbourhood that hangs on the side of one of the city’s many hills, above the Golden Horn, the shores of Asia, and even the Sea of Marmara. Baldwin was a drinker, and one of his favourite neighbourhood spots was the Park Hotel. These days that glamorous meeting place is a terrible hulking carcass of a stunted building project, all grey, barren floors and trash heaps, stray dogs barking at nothing all hours of the day. Both vistas – the fabled view, the hovering skeleton – loom outside the living room windows of the great Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, who was largely responsible for Baldwin’s little-known sojourn in Turkey, where he lived on and off throughout the 1960s.

When I went to visit Cezzar last winter, a collection of letters between Baldwin and Cezzar had just been showcased in an Istanbul bookstore along with Baldwin’s translated works, and I told Cezzar I’d bought them. He scowled: “Don’t read Jimmy Baldwin in Turkish, for Christ’s sake.” Cezzar seemed proud of his book, and his special friendship with “Jimmy,” but he had priorities. He prized Baldwin as one thing above all else: a writer.

Cezzar speaks in an old-school dramatic accent, as if prepared to launch into Shakespeare at any moment. (In fact, in Turkey, he is famous for playing Hamlet for 200 nights straight). His relationship with Baldwin lasted three decades, and he is one of the few people who might understand why one of America’s most iconoclastic thinkers, its most profound preacher-essayist, chose to spend most of the 1960s in a country few Americans ever even think of.

When Baldwin left for Istanbul he was, in some ways, just getting started on his lifelong endeavour to dissect America’s race problem: he was not yet the commercial success – or the prophet of the civil rights movement – that he would become during the tumultuous decade that followed.


Obama, Philosopher in Chief

In the elegant Wiener Börsensäle, the historic former stock exchange in a city whose vulnerability to Islam symbolized tensions between Europe and Muslim culture for centuries, Buruma spoke on “The Virtues and Limits of Cosmopolitanism,” presenting sophisticated context for an idea at the core of Obama’s approach in Cairo.

Cosmopolitanism is a “tricky” notion, Buruma observed. In one regard, we think of it as “a positive term denoting a high degree of cultivation and even glamour.” We recognize, as per the Oxford English Dictionary, that it connotes “ease in many different countries and cultures.” In another regard, Buruma noted, the “same word, spoken with a sneer and contempt,” and often preceded by “bourgeois” or “rootless,” played an ugly role in Nazi and Soviet propaganda. In that slanderous argot, the “cosmopolitan,” being “of too many places,” simply “cannot be one of us” — whoever we may be.

Buruma’s etymology lesson, appropriately offered in a “Jan Patocka Memorial Lecture” honoring the Prague Spring philosopher who inspired Václav Havel’s own openmindedness, suggests the delicate intellectual maneuver Obama tried to pull off in Cairo. There he expressed what lies behind many of his surface “nonpartisan” positions: a cosmopolitan ideal of the American thinker. The thinker, that is, committed to cooperative conversation, a figure first powerfully delineated by Richard Rorty in his neopragmatist works, then echoed in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2006) by Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian-American philosopher whose leadership in many American high-cultural organizations parallels Obama’s own ascent.


Be Realistic, Demand the Negative

Its [dialectics'] is the agony of the world, raised to a concept.

– Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Marina Vishmidt reviews Negativity and Revolution in Mute Magazine:

This volume represents an audacious plot to seize the legacy of Frankfurt School naysayer Theodor Adorno and rehabilitate it for the post-anti-globalisation radical left. Starting from the negative dialectics of Adorno’s own abstention from any social movement in his time, (unless calling the police to remove the students occupying the Institute of Social Research in 1969 counts as participation), the book aims to chart the intricate paths that negation can take in revolutionary politics and thought in the present.

The book’s avowed causus belli is the good fight against the rot of ‘post-structuralism’ introduced into philosophy by Marxists – ranging from Althusser to Hardt and Negri – when they ditched contradiction for difference as the grounding principle of materialist theory. Its strategy is to demonstrate the conceptual and practical virtues of negation, dialectics, and negative dialectics, with the object of restoring class struggle and antagonism to the heart of the revolutionary project. The route through Adorno that this dictates, of course, is bound to be a dramatically ambiguous one, seeing as part of the negativity of negative dialectics is the constitutive gap between object and concept which would militate against the inscription of this thought into any kind of concrete emancipatory praxis. An aporia which Adrian Wilding’s text in particular details adroitly by situating Adorno alongside Herbert Marcuse in the circa-68 milieu. Marcuse stands as a counter-example of a Frankfurt School theorist who became a leading light of the student movements, though Wilding eschews any study of his motives, philosophical or political, training his lens only on Adorno.



Quand les médias de gauche censurent les intellectuels de gauche

…j’ai découvert un homme politique original, un économiste de talent et, qui plus est, une personnalité absolument sincère et intellectuellement honnête. Son adhésion au parti de gauche de Jean-Luc Mélenchon n’a pas dû plaire à tous dans le petit monde politico-médiatique. Ne quittait-il pas le fameux « cercle de la raison » ? Jacques Généreux a écrit un livre qui a été publié ce printemps : « Le socialisme néo moderne ou l’avenir de la liberté ». Alors que tant d’autres se déchirent, se flinguent ou attendent désespérement un appel de l’Elysée, Jacques Généreux réfléchit et écrit. Original, non ?

Tout cela devrait intéresser au plus haut point les hebdomadaires et quotidiens de gôôôche. Figurez vous pourtant qu’aucun d’entre eux n’a jugé bon d’écrire une ligne sur ce livre alors qu’ils se précipitent tous pour commenter la dernière merde (1) publiée par Jack Lang. Et après, on se lamente, à longueurs d’éditoriaux, de la pauvreté de réflexion à gauche, de l’absence de ses propositions. Larmes de crocodiles. Finalement, c’est bien commode d’avoir Sarko à l’Elysée. Cela évite de réfléchir et de faire place à ceux qui réfléchissent. Il n’y a qu’à s’opposer avec tout le succès que l’on connaît.

Alors, puisque la presse de gauche ne le fait pas, je m’y colle.


*Le socialisme néomoderne ou l’avenir de la liberté de Jacques Généreux

Enough Already – What I’d really like to tell the bores in my life

What is it with bores? I mean the sort of people who always have to hold the floor. They talk constantly at you, hurling their words like spears, each one tiny enough but nearly deadly in their collective effect. Almost all bores seem to have been born with, or to have developed, an amazing capacity: they can talk and take in air at the same time, so there’s never a moment to drop in your own two cents. On they go. They take no interest in you or anything about you; at best, you’re a stage prop in the one-person drama that they compose, produce, and star in. These are the people who like to proclaim that they are about to make a long story short, when what they usually do is make no story at all interminable. They’re the people who clear their throats, look you in the eye, and, with great finality, say, “My point is . . . ,” then proceed to ramble on with no point whatever in sight. They’re the people whose idea of human interaction seems to be turning up the volume on the monologue that’s always going on in their heads. William James dignified this flow of words by calling it the “stream of consciousness”; in bores, the stream comes at you like a flooding river. Nothing stands in its way. Plutarch, the historian and moralist, dedicated an essay to this sort of person, and his assessment of the type was anything but sweet. Having a bore as a doctor, he says, is worse than having the disease; “as a fellow passenger he is worse than seasickness, his praise is more annoying than any blame.”

What is the bore trying to tell you? Is it “You are nothing and I am all”? An acquaintance of mine, when asked how he is, inevitably replies with an interminable list of the places he’s visited recently and then of where he’ll be going next—the more exotic the place, the longer his dilation. As he talks, I feel myself shrink further and further toward oblivion.

Sometimes he’ll name a place he’s going to see and I feel that green clutch of envy. I wish I was going there too. Overall, it’s no pleasure to be envious, but the good thing about envy, assuming that there is one, is that when you feel the bite, you learn something about what you want. When I hear about the trip to Paraguay and my stomach clutches, it probably means that Paraguay is a place to put on my wish list. On the matter of wanting, a lot of us go around dazed and confused. We don’t really know what we’d like—there’s so much available in our consumer utopia, it spins the brain. Knowing what you want isn’t always an easy trick, though most children seem to master it. I understand that for some time Parisian followers of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to greet each other in the street with the salutation “Where do you stand in regard to your desires?” (I’m sure it sounds more elegant in French.) The salutation had the effect of reminding both parties that they’re desiring beings—capable of wishing and having the wish come true (maybe), thereby attaining happiness (perhaps).



Remotely related: Hmm =)

An old-fashioned kind of geek

“It isn’t just about this crisis, it’s about a much bigger process,” [Douglas Rushkoff] says, when we meet in the back room of a San Francisco conference centre (he has just delivered a barnstorming talk on why the stock market is a dangerous beast to a room full of stock-obsessed internet executives). “It’s the process through which we internalised values and built a physical landscape where there are towns and roads that support this sort of corporatised, disconnected existence. It’s about why the Dow Jones is the metric we choose to measure our health.”

His thesis is that centuries of corporate influence have turned us into a world of isolated, individualistic people pitted against each other. It’s familiar territory for the followers of Naomi Klein or Joel Bakan, the author of The Corporation, a damning examination of modern business. But Rushkoff’s ideas are more complex.

He tracks back our economic system to the Renaissance, when the first corporations were born. Initially created as an attempt by the aristocracy to control – and profit from – the actions of the merchant class, corporations slowly became more powerful, setting up new codes that encouraged people to stop producing things and start buying.

* Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back (Hardcover) by Douglas Rushkoff


“I am not a woman writer”


The first reason why feminist theory fell silent on the question of women and writing is the rise of poststructuralism. In the late 1970s, Roland Barthes’s (1977) essay “The Death of the Author” was beginning to be quoted everywhere. Equally influential was Jacques Derrida’s (1988) systematic attempt to show that literary texts are just texts, that is to say a system of signs where meaning (signification) arises through the play of the signifiers, without any reference to a speaking subject, and Michel Foucault’s (1977) radical anti-humanism. In the 1980s, such theories started to conflict seriously with the interest in women’s writing. Feminists who wanted to work on women writers at the same time as they were convinced that Barthes, Derrida and Foucault were right, began to wonder whether it really mattered whether the author was a woman. In the United States, the tensions involved in this position were expressed in a landmark debate between Peggy Kamuf and Nancy Miller about the status of the female author. This debate has two acts, the first consisting in two essays from 1981, the second in an exchange of letters from 1989. Read together, the two exchanges sharply register the evolution of the theoretical climate in the intervening decade.


*Art by Nick Bantock from The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd (Penguin Classics, Limited Edition)