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The Virtual Identity of Life

Budimir Zdravkovic
City College of New York


Information can be defined as any sequence or arrangement of things that can convey a message. Here I would like to focus on information coded by biological organisms and how that information is related to their identity. The essence of living things has been difficult to define conceptually. Living things or biological things have certain properties which are unique to them and which are absent in inanimate matter. Defining life has been an ongoing problem for scientists and philosophers, but what is more puzzling is that living organisms do not appear to be defined by the conventional rules of identity. To illustrate what is meant by conventional rules let us look at the Ship of Theseus paradox, which begins with an old boat made of old parts. As this boat is renovated and the old parts are replaced with new ones, it gradually begins to lose its identity. When all the parts of the ship are eventually replaced, can we still say this new renovated ship is the Ship of Theseus? If so, what if we reassembled the old ship from the old parts? Would Theseus now possess two ships? In this paradox it is clear that the problem of identifying the ship stems from defining it in terms of its old and/or new components. The conflict of identity exists because old components are replaced with new ones, confusing our common-sense notions of continuity. (more…)

The Oxford Philosopher Speaks to… Stephen Boulter

9781137322814Stephen Boulter is a Senior Lecturer and Field Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Oxford Brookes University. Having completed his PhD at the University of Glasgow, he is now both a published author (see Metaphysics from a Biological Point of View and The Rediscovery of Common Sense Philosophy) and a respected member of Oxford’s philosophical milieu. Boulter has also been contracted to the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (SCCC) as a Development Officer and National Trainer of Scotland’s philosophy A-level. His research interests include the philosophy of language, the philosophy of evolutionary biology, perception, metaphysics, virtue ethics, Aristotle, and medieval philosophy. We at The Oxford Philosopher interrupted these interests for a moment to ask Boulter a few questions about his own experience of philosophy as an academic discipline.

What was the first piece of philosophical literature you read from beginning to end, and have you revisited it since?

My first piece of philosophical literature read from beginning to end was Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. It was part of a course that included Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. I’ve reread the work many times since. Part of my current research focuses on the continuities between scholasticism and early modern philosophy – the theme of the so-called ‘long middle ages’ – so there is a sense in which I’ve never stopped reading it.


The Crossroads of Power: Michel Foucault and the US/Mexico Border Wall

Thomas Nail
University of Denver


This paper draws on the work of Michel Foucault in order to analyze the constellation of political strategies and power at the US/Mexico border wall. These strategies, however, are incredibly diverse and often directly antagonistic of one another. Thus, this paper argues that in order to make sense of the seemingly multiple and contradictory political strategies deployed in the operation of the US/Mexico border wall, we have to understand the co-existence and intertwinement of at least three distinct types of power at work there: the sovereign exclusion of illegal life, the disciplinary detention of surveilled life, and the biopolitical circulation of migratory life. By doing so this paper offers an original contribution to two major areas of study: in Foucault studies this paper expands the existing literature on Foucault by analyzing the crossroads of power particular to the US/Mexico border wall, which has not yet been done, and in border studies this Foucauldian approach offers a unique political analysis that goes beyond the critique of sovereignty and toward an analysis of coexisting strategies of power. (more…)

Five States of Nature in Hobbes’s Leviathan

Gregory B. Sadler


In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes develops a constellation of notions of considerable conceptual refinement and of lasting rhetorical power. These notions coalesce at their most central point, the ‘state of nature.’ An overly simplistic view of the Hobbesian state of nature forms part of what may be called a standard reading of Leviathan.  This interpretation is prevalent in scholarship engaging Hobbes’s thought and doctrine not for its own sake, but in order to provide a contrast against other thinkers, to fit Hobbes into a broader schema of intellectual trends, tradition, or movements, or to diagnose Hobbes and his thought as the precursor of something particularly unsavory arising specifically in modernity.  Pedagogical uses of Hobbes also typically rely upon (and in the process perpetuate) that reading.  Such interpretations can also be found in scholarship engaging Hobbes in more focused and systematic ways, since studying other portions of Hobbes’s thought is rendered easier and less messy by ignoring ambiguities and puzzles arising when the state of nature is understood in relation to other notions intimately connected with it [1]. (more…)

The Oxford Philosopher Speaks to… Constantine Sandis

Constantine SandisHaving graduated from St Anne’s College, Oxford, as an undergraduate and taught philosophy at Oxford Brookes University for the past ten years, Constantine Sandis is soon to leave the Dreaming Spires for a professorship at the University of Herfordshire. These are not the philosopher’s only plans for the future, however: working mostly on the philosophy of action and its explanation, Sandis is planning books on both the unregistered significance of action theory in normative ethics and the need for a philosophy of understanding. The Oxford Philosopher took a moment of his time to ask a few question about his own experience of philosophy as an academic discipline.

What was the first piece of philosophical literature you read from beginning to end, and have you revisited it since?

The first piece of literature was Gabriele Taylor’s Aristotelian Society essay ‘Love’, written the year I was born. I was seventeen and took it to the beach in Cyprus expecting something soft and soppy only to be confronted with heaps of propositional calculus. Gabriele has since told me that she regrets incorporating this formal logic which was just ‘showing off’.  I had a chance to revisit the essay a few years ago when I was editing a volume on ‘Love and Reasons’ and think I understand it a little better now. As for an entire book, like many people, it was Descartes’ Meditations. I’ve revisited it many times since for teaching purposes and one always finds something new in it each time.


Antinomies of Temporal and Corporeal Affect: Interrogating Jamesonian Realism in Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’

Arka Chattopadhyay
University of West Sydney

‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’ (Barnes, 2011, p.17). Adrian, one of the characters in Julian Barnes’s 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending (ibid.) attributes this indictment of historical veracity to a fictitious French historian, Patrick Lagrange. The false-citation marks the double-aporia in this already aporetic vision of history as a locus where truth can only remain in a state of suspension. What interests me here is a question of time, not space. As we shall see, the novel reiterates the modernist trope of unreliable memory in attempting to reconstitute the past in the light of the present. It begins with a catalogue of six random images thrown up by free-associative memory and immediately develops what the first-person narrator, Tony, calls ‘time’s malleability’ (p.3). The affective images of memory jettison chronological time by turning it into something as malleable as the affects themselves. Tony elaborates, ‘Some emotions speed it [time] up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing— until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return’ (ibid.). The novel takes its title from Frank Kermode’s eponymous book of literary criticism published in 1966. Barnes responds to Kermode’s central questions of time and literary realism: Barnes, much like Kermode, unsettles the temporal linearity of the Aristotelian beginning, middle and end by suggesting what the latter calls a ‘world without end or beginning’ (Kermode, 2000, p.67).

The time which abandons chronos is a time replete with what is lost forever. Instead of being able to recollect the past, the subjective history formed by the jigsaw pieces of memory can only arrive at a lacking point where time itself gets dissolved. There is no time in this eternity, and memory can only yield the emotions of the present in the present. As Tony states, ‘I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time’ (p.41). The past is dissolved as soon as it is invoked in this telling, and we are left with the present of this ‘now’ which can only fall back upon itself. There is a hesitation here regarding the time of reading: is Tony reading in the present of this ‘now’ alongside the reader or has he already done his reading in the past? Can his present alter or reconfigure the past or does the past remain dead and buried? These questions regarding narrative temporality are of great interest to Fredric Jameson’s 2013 book The Antinomies of Realism, which in my view is not simply a literary defence of the nineteenth-century realistic novel but a philosophical revitalization of literary and novelistic realism mediating through the dialectical conditions of modernity and postmodernity. I will read the complex and aporetic temporality of the Barnes novel in the light of Jameson’s thoughts on a new historical time of the present in the aforementioned book. Though I will problematize the neatness of Jameson’s identifications at various points before going beyond them to propose a Lacanian supplement, I consider this analysis to be in Jameson’s spirit in holding up the figure of antinomy as the auto-deconstructive hinge for his notion of realism.


The Barbarism of the Migrant

Thomas Nail
University of Denver

Significant portions of the population of the United States believe that immigrants are naturally inferior. The attitude is not new. In fact, the idea of a natural political inferiority was invented in the ancient world, though it has repeated itself again and again throughout history—hence the persistence of the term ‘barbarian.’ Originally used to classify those beyond the pale of ancient Greek and Roman society, ‘barbarian’ has since been redeployed throughout all of history to designate one’s cultural and political enemies as ‘naturally inferior.’ From the nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie who called the migrant peasants in Paris ‘savage barbarians’ to the Nazi propaganda that described migrant Jews as ‘uncivilized oriental barbarians,’ the perceived inferiority of migrant groups relative to political centers has proven to be an enduring source of antagonism.

The recent slurs against Mexican migrants to the United States on the presidential campaign stage retreads this familiar ground. Mexican immigrants are perceived by many in the United States (including the government) to have a negative impact on those states. It is for this same reason that the entry of barbarians in the Greek polis, Roman Empire, and even in ancient Sumer was carefully restricted. In the United States, and in the ancient empires, large military-style walls were built and guarded to control the movement of undesirable foreigners into the community. The reasons for the undesirability of their respective foreign populations vary in each society, yet all these powers are associated with massive wall projects.

Significant portions of American and ancient societies also found these populations of foreigners undesirable because they would have a negative impact on the ‘culture’ of the host country—yet barbarians were also required as manual laborers to support that culture. In part, it is the language of the immigrant’s culture that is perceived as inferior or incompatible to the host’s language. This matches Aristotle’s first key characteristic of barbarism: the inability to speak the language of the political center. Anti-immigrant discourse in the United States is filled with rhetoric about Mexican immigrants who cannot or ‘refuse to’ learn English and whose populations are changing the ‘American way of life.’ Both contemporary and ancient societies believed that these immigrations were not benign but constituted a political and military ‘invasion’ that required a military response, thus the walls, deportations, and military operations.


Readings of Dostoevsky in ‘Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy’ by Lev Shestov

Marina Jijina-Ogden
University of the Arts, London

Written in 1899 -1903, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy (1903) is among the earlier works written by Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. For possibly the first time in Russian literature, these two great thinkers of the nineteenth century  (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche) were brought into a comparative discussion, subjected to a critical analysis and evaluated on a single philosophical level. It is well known that Shestov’s discovery of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work in the 1890s had a stratospheric influence on his thinking (Finkenthal, 2010, p.30).  And as Bernard Martin points out in his introduction to the book, it was from Nietzsche that Shestov drew the inspiration for his own lifelong polemic against the power of universal moral rules and the domination of reason (Martin, 1966, VII). For Shestov, like for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, the focus of philosophy moves from the universal to the individual. In his advance towards a notion of tragic philosophy, he relies on the experiences of these two precursors, adopting the underground man as the spokesman for his critical thought. He develops a philosophical perspective that rests on the absurd, or as he defines it, the ‘ugly reality’ (Shestov, 1969, pp.148-149). (more…)