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The Affective Ground of Natural Goodness

Tyler Olsson
University of California, Santa Cruz

The concept of Natural Goodness is Philippa Foot’s moral appropriation of Michael Thompson’s analysis of the logical representation of life forms. Campagna and Guevara (C&G) have taken over the concept of Natural Goodness and applied it to their project of developing a new language for conservation in hopes that their application of it in this domain can help bring out what the philosophically empty notion of nature’s “intrinsic value” would otherwise communicate. They think that a new language toward this purpose will help shape our ethical thinking about conservation, and specifically they are interested in a language that can answer morally significant questions like “What is lost when a species goes extinct?” This paper reviews C&G’s project, both their motivations and the details and application of their theory thus far. I then point out that a crucial shortcoming of their work to date is that they have yet to address the issue of how we know, or how we are in touch with the value of Natural Goodness. In other words, what justifies us in claiming that the concept of Natural Goodness carries within it a moral value at all? I suggest that an Aristotelian conception of human virtue points toward affective perceptual capacities as the ground for knowledge of the moral value of Natural Goodness. I connect this to some of the insights put forth by Kant in his third Critique, arguing that the appropriate affective state for being in touch with the moral value of Natural Goodness is the feeling of disinterested pleasure. I consider some potential objections to my appropriation of Kant’s philosophy to this specific end, and I close with a Wittgensteinian word on the limits of language in communicating ethical or moral values generally.1 (more…)

History’s Missing Pieces: Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting on the Upcoming Philosopher Queens

Image result for simone de beauvoir

Throughout history, philosophers have retained a special place in our collective imagination even where interest in them has faded. Take Descartes or Nietzsche, for instance. Neither philosopher’s books would be considered standard material for the modern reader, yet through a few well placed witticisms the identities of these men have made lasting impressions on the Western mind. We see these impressions everywhere, from when we describe our relationships as ‘platonic’ to when we recite anecdotes about ancient Greeks dying in fits of laughter or Catholic priests turning out to be atheists all along. Our culture is, in other words, laced with titbits of philosophical history despite relatively few of us knowing much about it. We become acquainted with philosophers almost by osmosis.

In light of this, the leading question of Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting’s upcoming project is all the more striking—can you name any women philosophers? Regrettably few of us can, and for this we’re not to blame: our history books simply fail to mention them, and thus any culturally conceived idea we have of ‘a philosopher’ tends to be a male one. In the recently funded Philosopher Queens, however, two young researchers aim to dismantle this idea in their invaluable collection on women philosophers of history. Taking time out of their preparations to catch up with The Oxford Philosopher, we learned a bit about what was to come. (more…)

Review: Head in the Clouds: An Invitation to ‘Philosophy’ by Tyler Olsson

Michael B. Fielding
Author of The Sailboat Diaries

What books would you bring to a desert island?

This question has been asked on many occasions, yet few people actually run the experiment. The question encourages us to think in unfamiliar ways. In everyday life, our choice in literature might seem a rather mundane dilemma because if I pick up a book and don’t enjoy reading it, I can simply exchange it for another. The desert island scenario thus forces us to imagine a different system of values from which we derive novel evaluations based on the unfamiliar terrain. It’s a fun game to play, but without the first-hand experience of being alone in the middle of nowhere, it can be hard to give much weight to our resolutions. (more…)

Musing: John Wisdom on the Meaning of the Questions of Life

Michael Hauskeller
University of Liverpool

This is the first in a series of musings
from the University of Liverpool’s Michael Hauskeller.

What do we mean when we ask about the meaning of life? Does the question even make sense? Grammar may suggest it does, but grammar is a very unreliable guide. Perhaps the question ‘What is the meaning of life’ is not at all like ‘What is the speed of light?’ or ‘How tall is the Eiffel Tower?’, both of which make sense and can be answered. Perhaps it is more like ‘Which colour does the number seven have?’ or ‘What are the exact measurements of this thought?’, neither of which can be answered since we cannot make sense of them. In these cases we cannot understand what is being asked, not because we are not clever enough but because the questions themselves are incomprehensible—numbers have no colours and thoughts no spatial dimensions. (more…)

A New Refutation of Time

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
Written between 1944 and 1946

Vor mir keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine seyn.
Mit mir gebiert sie sich, mit mir geht sie auch ein.
(Before me there was no time, after me there will be none.
With me it is born, with me it will also die.)

— Daniel von Czepko, Sexcenta Monidisticha Sapientum III, II (1655)

Preliminary Note

Related imageHad this refutation (or its title) been published in the middle of the eighteenth century, it would be included in a bibliography by Hume, or at least mentioned by Huxley or Kemp Smith. But published in 1947 (after Bergson) it is the anachronistic reductio ad absurdum of an obsolete system, or even worse, the feeble artifice of an Argentine adrift on a sea of metaphysics. Both conjectures are plausible and perhaps even true, but I cannot promise some startling new conclusion on the basis of my rudimentary dialectics. The thesis I shall expound is as old as Zeno’s arrow or the chariot of the Greek king in the Milinda Pañha; its novelty, if any, consists in applying to my ends the classic instrument of Berkeley. Both he and his successor David Hume abound in paragraphs that contradict or exclude my thesis; nonetheless, I believe I have deduced the inevitable consequence of their doctrine.1


The first article (A) was written in 1944 and appeared in number 115 of Sur; the second, from 1946, is a revision of the first. I have deliberately refrained from making the two into one, deciding that two similar texts could enhance the reader’s comprehension of such an unwieldy subject. A word on the title: I am not unaware that it is an example of that monster called a contradictio in adjecto by logicians, for to say that a refutation of time is new (or old, for that matter) is to recognize a temporal predicate that restores the very notion the subject intends to destroy. But I shall let this fleeting joke stand to prove, at least, that I do not exaggerate the importance of wordplay. In any case, language is so saturated and animated by time that, quite possibly, not a single line in all these pages fails to require or invoke it. (more…)

Musing: Spinoza and Feminism Question the Structures of Domination… Is the Mind-Body Problem a Gender Problem?

Eva Perez de Vega
The New School for Social Research

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Traditional theory on the mind-body problem has been mostly conceptualized by men. The historical debate found its most heated moment in the seventeenth century between René Descartes and Benedict de Spinoza, the first advocating for the superiority of the mind over body and the latter with his characteristically monist view framing the mind and body as one same substance. While it seemed that Descartes had won the debate, developments in neuroscience have been weighing towards the Spinozistic conception, and the feminine perspective had been largely ignored until Simone de Beauvoir published her seminal book in 1949. Feminists since then have had a conflicting relationship with the earlier debates, yet Spinoza’s work, with its materialist framework, seems to be holding steady ground within the contemporary feminist movement. Spinoza’s ontology is, for instance, used as framework to discuss feminism (anarcha-feminism) in Chiara Bottici’s text, “Bodies in Plural: Towards an anarcha-feminist manifesto.” But this reliance on ‘the dead white man’ as a means of passing through feminist issues poses some interesting questions, chief among them whether a white male from the seventeenth century can provide any openings to thinking about women’s issues in the twenty-first century.

In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes explicitly about the female body, about the physical cycles it undergoes: menstruation, pain, blood, etc. De Beauvoir’s body is intentionally physical. Her depiction exacerbates the materiality of female bodies, and in so doing brings into relief the dualistic conceptions of men and women. The intensity of the writing illustrates her view that women have been thought of as the non-male—the other—associated with the body, nature and instinct, as opposed to men who were deemed rational, intellectual beings of culture and mind: the creators from which woman is made as a sub-entity. Spinoza’s body challenges this dualism. His is not the same body, or rather, it is not solely a body; it is a body in a broader materialist conception. It is an “eccentric materialism” that exceeds but nonetheless encompasses the physical body (see the work of neuroscientist Antonio Demasio, on Spinoza and on Descartes). For Spinoza, the body and the mind are the same thing, a single substance, looked at from different points of view—extension and thought. As he writes in his Ethics, “The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body.” (more…)

Is Nature Continuous or Discrete? How the Atomist Error Was Born

Thomas Nail
University of Denver

Image result for lucretius

The modern idea that nature is discrete originated in Ancient Greek atomism. Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus all argued that nature was composed of what they called ἄτομος (átomos) or ‘indivisible individuals’. Nature was, for them, the totality of discrete atoms in motion. There was no creator god, no immortality of the soul, and nothing static (except for the immutable internal nature of the atoms themselves). Nature was atomic matter in motion and complex composition – no more, no less.

Despite its historical influence, however, atomism was eventually all but wiped out by Platonism, Aristotelianism and the Christian tradition that followed throughout the Middle Ages. Plato told his followers to destroy Democritus’ books whenever they found them, and later the Christian tradition made good on this demand. Today, nothing but a few short letters from Epicurus remain.

Atomism was not finished, however. It reemerged in 1417, when an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy of an ancient poem in a remote monastery: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Lucretius (c. 99-55 BCE), a Roman poet heavily influenced by Epicurus. This book-length philosophical poem in epic verse puts forward the most detailed and systematic account of ancient materialism that we’ve been fortunate enough to inherit. In it, Lucretius advances a breathtakingly bold theory on foundational issues in everything from physics to ethics, aesthetics, history, meteorology and religion. Against the wishes and best efforts of the Christian church, Bracciolini managed to get it into print, and it soon circulated across Europe. (more…)