Taking Frege Seriously

Joan Weiner, Taking Frege at His Word, Oxford University Press 2020, xxvii + 317 pp.

In 1936 Edmund Husserl wrote in a private letter to Heinrich Scholz, the collector of Frege’s writings, that he had never met Frege in person and that Frege was considered at the time “a sharply intelligent outsider who bore fruit neither as a mathematician nor as a philosopher.”[1] That was, of course, a misjudgment. We can see now more clearly that Frege contributed, in fact, at least three things to mathematics and philosophy after him. The first was his new logic (the propositional and predicate calculus) that replaced the old Aristotelian logic. Given the important role that the Aristotelian syllogistic had played in philosophy for more than two thousand years that was, indeed, a significant achievement. The second was Frege’s attempt to show that arithmetic can be reduced to logic. Frege’s logicist thesis has not remained uncontested and his way of trying to prove it has turned out to be defective, but the considerations that led him to it are still being taken seriously by philosophers of mathematics. The third are his thoughts about signs – the symbols and formulas of his logical calculus and the words and sentences of ordinary language – and the way they serve to convey meaning. These “semantic” considerations have contributed much to the subsequent development of the philosophy of language.[2]

read more

The Murder of Professor Schlick

David Edmonds, The Murder of Professor Schlick. The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, Princeton Univerity Press 2020, xiv + 313 pp, $ 27.95.

It was the morning of June 22, 1936. Shortly after 9 am Moritz Schlick, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, was on the way to his lecture when one of his former students intercepted him on the university staircase. “Now, you damned bastard, there you have it,” the man was heard shouting as he unloaded a pistol into his victim. Schlick was instantly dead. The student, Nelböck by name, remained on the scene, waiting to be arrested. When he was questioned, he gave a variety of confused reasons for his attack. It became quickly clear that he was mentally unstable.  At his trial, Nelböck settled on saying that Schlick’s anti-metaphysical philosophy had undermined him morally. Two years later, after Hitler had marched into Austria, he changed his story and declared that he had acted on the conviction that Schlick was Jewish. He was duly released by the new Nazi authorities and he eventually died twenty years later, still a free man, in post-Second-World-War Austria.

read more

Political Philosophy: What to read

Philosophers have written copiously about politics. There is, moreover, no sharp dividing line between “philosophical” writings on politics and other kinds of writing on this topic. So there is no end to what one might read under the heading of “political philosophy”. Here is a list of 17 significant texts, some classical and some modern, some short and some long, some famous and some not so famous, some highly readable and some very demanding. The selection is, of course, mine; others might add to it or subtract from it. I will add some comments on what makes these writings interesting and important.

read more

How to Democratize Hong Kong

Hong Kong has never been a democracy and it is certainly not one now. It has, in fact, become decidedly less democratic in the last few years. And that is a reason for the friends of a democratic Hong Kong to feel down-hearted. But there is no need for despair. There is need rather for a strategic retreat and for tactical rethinking.

Democracy is, after all, more than a governmental system; it is, first of all, an ideal – one  that  is never fully realized but can only be approximated. It is the ideal of a group of people who together rule themselves. This is most easily pursued in a small group of mature, informed, and like-minded people. But states and, in particular, modern states are not like this. There are vast numbers of citizen of all ages in all kinds of condition, with degrees of knowledge or ignorance, who are anything but like-minded. The ideal of democracy thus becomes easily confused. And, worse, we lose sight of what lies behind it which is a conception of human nature as capable of a proud self-determination.

read more
Published
Categorized as Blog, China

The Triumph of Institutional Nihilism: Hong Kong’s new M+ Museum

On the outside Hong Kong’s new M+ museum has all the charm of a cigarette box; inside it is as heart-warming as an oversized car garage.  There is nothing intimate, personal, attractive, alive, or memorable about this building. M+, like its sister institutions, is in fact nothing but a monument to a cold institutional nihilism.

read more
Published
Categorized as Blog, China

How Hong Kong became a police state

September 19, 2021

The first round of a so-called “election” process under a new National Security Law has just taken place in Hong Kong. Out of a population of 7,5 million inhabitants, just 4,800 were qualified to be voters. The process has, in fact, more of the character of an appointment process than of an election. All the candidates have been carefully vetted. They were ultimately cleared as the result of a police investigation. It is evident then that the final controlling authority in Hong Kong is today the national security police. The most powerful figure in the city is a former policeman, John Lee, who now serves as the security minister. Carrie Lam, the official chief executive of Hong Kong, has been demoted to being the spokesperson for the new regime.

read more

The Private and the Public. What we can learn from Wittgenstein

On a Canadian website devoted to the translation of writings by contemporary Chinese intellectuals, its creator, David Ownby of the University of Montréal, writes: “China is, if not totalitarian, surely authoritarian, and I readily admit that I do not fully understand the relationship between the Chinese state and the intellectuals I study.  It is obvious that their published work is not a perfect reflection of their private thoughts, which surely means that many times they cannot say what they really think, but what trade-offs they make and how they make their calculations remain obscure.  While I prefer to believe that what they publish is a fair if perhaps partial reflection of what they think, many people do not, and I admit that now and again I wonder if I’m being played.”[1]

read more

Wittgenstein’s Transitions

 “In this work more than in any other it is worth looking at apparently solved questions again and again from new sides as unsolved,“ Ludwig Wittgenstein jotted in his philosophical notebook in November of 1914. “Don’t get stuck with what you once wrote. Think always of a fresh beginning, as if nothing had as yet happened.” (p. 30) [1] The First World War had been raging for months; Wittgenstein was serving as an outlook on an Austrian gunboat; but he remained determined to continue the philosophical work he had been doing before the war with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. “Logic must take care of itself,” had been the opening entry in his new notebook on August 22. He called it “a singularly profound and significant insight.” (p. 2) The sentence was intended to say, first of all, that logic is self-contained, that it does not rest on anything outside it. But by putting it at the head of his notebook Wittgenstein may also have been expressing the hope that his work in logic would not be affected by the vagaries of the war. “Will I be able to work now?” he had asked himself anxiously on the first page of the private diary he attached to his philosophical notebook.[2] It turned out that he could do so even under heavy bombardment. “Canons shook the boat as they fired near us at night. Worked much and with success,” he wrote on December 6.[3] But progress was often slow and he feared that “the redeeming word has not been spoken.”[4] As long as that was the case, he could only go over the same ground again and again. His most vexing problem at the time was that of “the logical form of the proposition,” a topic he had been exploring with Russell in the preceding years. But his view on the topic was still far from settled. “Does the subject-predicate form exist,” he now asked himself. “Does the relational form exist? Do any of the forms exist at all that Russell and I were always talking about?” (pp. 2-3)  And so it went with questions but no definitive answers.

read more

Michel Foucault a pedophile?

The sordid story is going around that Foucault sodomized little boys in Moslem graveyards while he was teaching at the University of Tunis in the late 1960’s. It is due to a certain Guy Sorman who describes himself as a “leading French intellectual” but is in reality a self-promoting right-wing hack who has spent his career lauding the miracle of unrestrained capitalism. Sorman launched his attack in the middle of March on French media and then repeated it to The Times of London on March 28, 2021. He said that that after more than fifty years his conscience had suddenly awoken and forced to tell his story. We don’t know what really motivates him. Is he just someone who is pining for attention? An idle gossip? Is he simply mistaking the facts after so many years? Or suffering from the first signs of dementia?

read more
Published
Categorized as Politics

Welcome to the New Reality: Chinese farmers expelled from land to create “an old village to attract tourists”

Four people were killed when a man detonated a homemade bomb in a village in southern China. Local media said the blast occurred at the village committee office, which decides on matters linked to land use. Officials had given 270 acres of land to a developer in Shanghai last year to recreate an old village to attract tourists. Several people who claimed to be living near the area said online that the attack was triggered by a dispute over compensation.

read more
Published
Categorized as Blog

The Deficiency Theory of Human Nature and Its Deficits

Thomas Hobbes writes famously in chapter 13 of his Leviathan that human life under natural conditions is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[1] In order to live a social rather than a solitary life, a comfortable rather than a poor one, in order to live in a pleasantly civilized way rather than a nasty and brutish one, and in order to be long-lived rather than cut short in years, Hobbes argues, humans need to overcome their natural condition and create an artificial world, a second nature, a state, a commonwealth. Fortunately, they have “reason” which “suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.”[2] These “laws of nature” allow them to create the desired “commonwealth” with its “commodious living.” But it is not inevitable that they will succeed in this undertaking. Hobbes writes in De Cive: “Men come together … not because naturally it could happen no otherwise, but by accident.”[3]

read more

“Benevolent Autocracy.” The case of Hong Kong

On January 4, 2021, 1,000 Hong Kong police went out to arrest fifty-three democratic lawmakers, politicians, and activists. The event was as much a demonstration of unrestrained police power as an actual  police operation. The arrested were, moreover, charged with a strange crime, namely “trying to use strategic voting to secure a legislative majority, with an ultimate goal of shutting down the government.”[1] They had organized a primary election to produce a slate of democratic candidates for the then upcoming election to Hong Kong’s legislature. 600,000 Hong Kongers had cast their vote on that occasion.  The democrats had also expressed hope that their united front might gain a majority of the seats in the new legislature. Benny Tai, one of the initiators of the event, had, moreover, suggested in a newspaper op-ed that such a majority might eventually be able to veto the city’s budget and, perhaps, even push its unloved Chief Executive to resign.

read more

Breaking Democracy’s Spell

John Dunn's "Breaking Democracy's Spell" offers a withering but timely critique of the way we have come to think about democracy. The book argues that we need to rethink our understanding of democracy, if we are to to deal with the existential threats that face our species.

read more
Published
Categorized as Blog

Berkeley Years

Part 2 of my memoir

How I left England and went to teach in Berkeley.

read more
Published
Categorized as Blog

The Puzzle of Power

Let us be frank and admit that there is no such thing as power – just as there is no such thing as “the elephant” or “the rhinoceros.” It pays to be nominalist in all these cases and avoid a metaphysics of power just as much as a metaphysics of biological kinds. A noun makes us look for a corresponding object and an abstract noun for an abstract entity. Wittgenstein has shown how that misleads us. So, no power, but no harm will be done with the term, if we take it in the right way. Let us say, then, that there exists a field of relations of something affecting (bearing on, controlling, shaping, transforming, destroying, etc.) something in some way or other. Like Foucault, we can call this the field of relations of mobile inequality. It is from this field that we usually pick a subset we call relations of power. But the choice is wide open. Thus, we end up with disputes about the nature of power, disagreements about how power is to be defined. These arise only from an ill-conceived essentialism and should be relegated to the metaphysical dustbin.

read more