Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Philosophy when it is personal

If I ask you what is your personal philosophy you might say that you would have to think about it. You might also say that it defies definition because it is based on experience and emotion as much as upon any fundamental beliefs or experience.

Some people have answered that they see it as a life's work to answer that question.  I think I agree with that.  Others have said, "That is simple: to love my neighbour as myself."  To that I respond, "A clear philosophy, yes; simple I cannot agree.  It sounds a profoundly complex injunction to me.  In some situations I would find it hard to recognise the other person as my neighbour, and even harder to love them."

Perhaps that is the whole point.  Perhaps philosophy is always going to be hard to put into practice.  Perhaps the strength of philosophy is that it forces us to look at our responses to all aspects of life, not just the easily learned lessons, or the intellectually stimulating questions.  A real philosophy would need to work in wartime as well as in peace, in times of need as well as times of plenty, in times of anguish as well as times of contentment.

Perhaps this is the reason that Socrates carried on asking questions rather than establishing a formalised philosophy like that of his pupil Plato.  Plato relied heavily on the teachings of Socrates,  as he remembered or interpreted them, in his earlier writings, and then seemed to develop more of his own ideas.  It is therefore easier to disagree with Plato's philosophy than with that of Socrates.  It is hard to deny the importance of the questions that Socrates asked.

Socrates asked such questions as, "What is Truth?", "What is Beauty?", "What is Justice?",  "What is Good?". Nicholas Fearn, in "The Latest Answers ToThe Oldest Questions", describes attempts to answer these questions as attempts to "divine the nature of universals".  He states:

"If we knew their intrinsic nature we would be better equipped to act in accordance with them - to behave properly, judge propitiously and reason wisely."

Well, I am still working on that.  All the philosophical guidance that I have received from my parents, from my teachers, from reading and from discussion has to some extent informed my understanding but has not answered the questions.  Each new experience brings new complexities to the questions.

Does that mean then that I have nothing firm to go on?  No.  I might not have a definite philosophy but I have several guidelines. One of these is to establish where my duty lies.  Another of these is to establish for myself an appropriate bottom line.  A third is to try to do no harm. There are several such.  Many of them come from my working life.  I rely on them in daily life as I continue trying to understand the nature of the universals.

How about you?  How far have you formulated your own philosophy?  Do you have guidelines or first principles or injunctions to follow?  Do you ever get yourself in a muddle with it all?

When I get in a muddle or feel that I have failed I have my father's philosophy to fall back on, "All we can ever do is our best."  I hope that you have something similar to fall back on as you steer your way through life.

Thursday, 16 May 2013


There are so many books written about "The Emotions" that it is obvious that it is a topic about which there is plenty to say and a huge appetite for understanding; this is evident from the "self help" publications as well as the philosophical explorations.

Emotion is a part of our individual make-up.  We cannot feel someone else's emotion, nor can we convey exactly the nature of our own emotion.  It requires a leap of that imaginative understanding that we call empathy in order to come anywhere near another individual's experience of his emotion.  Perhaps that is why the work of poets, painters, dramatists, letter writers, novelists, musicians and song writers tug at our heart strings, because they touch that intensely private area of the emotions and we become "emotional".

Some experiences in life are labelled "emotional" such as a birth, a death, a marriage, a break up, an accident, illness or redundancy.  The stoics advised us to bear them with fortitude and to avoid becoming too attached to persons, places, objects, health or status.  If we are not "attached" any loss is theoretically less painful.

Cicero found no comfort in philosophical theory when his daughter died.

Indeed we are informed that Cicero divorced his young wife because she was insufficiently sympathetic about the death of his daughter.

So it would seem that anger and a wish to spread the hurt feelings are as much a part of grief as is sorrow.  In the same way, at happy times we often wish to spread the joy around and to be easy going and relaxed around other people.

For me the essential point to make is that the irrational component of emotion needs to be kept under strict control.  It is OK my friend (Cicero, Medea, Othello) to feel wretched and abandoned and lost and I feel sad for you when you do.  It is not OK to behave badly; to shout or to strike out at others.  It will not make you feel any better and it is very hurtful to those around.  No use later saying, "I did not mean it", or that you, "..loved not wisely but too well ... being wrought, perplexed in the extreme..... threw a pearl away."

Control of our emotions is what we need to teach children and is the example we need to set. Quite young children are now being excluded from school because their behaviour is "out of control."  It is frightening for the other children around and it is undoubtedly frightening for the child to feel in the grip of such frenzy.

I am aware yet again of "preaching to the converted" and so I am going to turn this over to you now.

How do you feel about the power of the emotions?  What are your theories about how to handle  emotion?  What does Emotional Intelligence mean to you?  How do you see the space between free expression and emotional literacy?  How can we help parents to prepare children for the experience of strong emotions and to find ways to bear them without disturbing others or harming themselves?

If you have anything you to say about emotion I would love to read it.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Common Sense

It has not been easy to write about Common Sense for three reasons:

a) I find it to be a concept that is intangible and hard to pin down.
b) In thinking about Common Sense I have been continuously having what Bernard Williams called, "One thought too many".*
c) appeals to “common sense” are too frequently used as a way to bypass rational argument and to shut down debate.

So I shall start with Thomas Paine. At the heart of his pamphlet, "Common Sense" (1775), are seven straightforward, clear reasons why the American people should throw off British rule. He wrote it in plain language and addressed his pamphlet to the people, not to the leaders.

I find his reasons irrefutable, and his wish to explain his ideas so clearly  to the populace in general, admirable. I also take it, from his pamphlet, that common sense is about clear, plain reasoning that is related to the realities of life and the appropriate exercise of power. Not related to any dogma or ideology, but to firm commitment to one's beliefs such as Paine's commitment to human rights about which he wrote more in "The Rights of Man" (1791).

So far so good. The elements of common sense that I understand so far are demonstrated by clear, plain reasoning, based on everyday reality.

 Common sense also requires that we express our arguments to the right audience. No use railing against increases in prices to the person at the checkout then, or about the train service being unfit for purpose, to the ticket inspector. No use tilting at windmills. Although this might release a few feelings, albeit to somebody else's displeasure or discomfort.

No wonder that Rabbi Lionel Blue, in his talks on the radio often referred to "Uncommon Sense". He was acknowledging how often passion overrules common sense reasoning.

On the other hand David Hume declared that "Reason is the slave of the passions". It is human to feel deeply about the people and events in our lives. And I agree with Hume that our powers of reasoning are there to be applied in the service of that which we hold dear. This could lead to a selfish or amoral existence but Hume promotes sympathy, through which we can desire for our fellow human beings that which we desire for ourselves.

These desires might be for freedom from oppression and cruelty, for justice, and the right to a family life and happiness. So we come back to Thomas Paine and his common sense approach to matters political, social, moral and passionate.

If I am not to have "one thought too many" and wander too far into abstract argument,  I must look at the reality of everyday life now. We live in a time of recession, but in general we are rich compared to the greater part of the world's population. We have political parties who agree about many of the main problems but squabble over details disguised as principles.

The outcome is a kind of tinkering around the edges that does not halt the decay in standards of care and provision felt by the most vulnerable in our society. For example, as an ex-schoolteacher I am less concerned about the "What", that is represented by the school curriculum, than I am about the "Who" represented by the pupils, parents and the community. I am passionate about building communities of healthy families; active, enquiring children; and thriving caring communities. I am passionate about teaching children "How" to learn, not "What" to learn. Provide the right conditions for learning and our children will learn more than we could ever teach them. We need to get our priorities right.

Common Sense tells me that I have two powers: the power of the vote and the power of words. If I am to speak or write I must be like Thomas Paine. I must be clear, plain, straightforward, realistic and write with conviction with open address. Common sense also tells me that where people do not speak out clearly disasters happen.

So to sum up, what do I think common sense is?

I think it comprises:

- A sense of reality, of what "makes sense, here, now, today" **
- A sense of cause and effect
- A sense of being a part of a greater whole
- A sense of the possible
- A sense of the practical
- A sense of commitment and consistency
- A sense of the opposite, the other side
- A sense of common ground
- A sense of belief in humanity and human rights and obligations
- A sense of what is important
- A sense of hope
- The courage of one's convictions.

This Easter I hope for an increase in this uncommon Common Sense for all the world's leaders and for ordinary people like me.

* and **: see "In The Beginning Was The Deed, Realism and Moralism in Political Argument", Bernard Williams, edited by Geoffrey Hawthorn. 2005 Princeton Press

With special appreciation to Hannah for your comments. I feel that if I answer myself it closes the debate, so I hope that more folk will find time to join in.

Best wishes to all, whether at home or away.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Why I should be more like a robot

The book that has caused me most thought recently is "Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds" by David McFarland, an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.

The early chapters especially have been fascinating and fun to read (the later chapters are well-explained accounts of various complex and contradictory theories of mind).  But the first thing that came out of this book for me is the thought of how useful it would be occasionally to look at ourselves as alien minds.

For animals and robots, and also presumably for people, there is an optimal balance between energy expanded and the gain accrued.  McFarland describes a cycle: Work -- Find fuel--Refuel.  To be efficient this cycle must maintain a balance between E (energy) and M (merit, money, marketability, or other gain).  What struck me most forcibly about this is that two parts of the cycle are to do with fuel.

Hmm!  I love eating and I loathe shopping.  Neither of these do I accomplish in a balanced way.  Sometimes I will eat too much of a particularly tasty food and at other times when I am engrossed in my work I forget to eat.  Because of my dislike of shopping my fridge is either overfull or almost empty.

Such a woefully inefficient robot I would be.  In this scenario, what McFarland calls the "decision variables" are too haphazard.  A robot would have been programmed to make the "decision" to refuel at the optimal time.  If it did not do so it would break down and be recalled for a service, or up-dated, or re-programmed or scrapped.  I wonder if I could re-programme myself to make decisions regarding fuel at the optimal times.  Some strategies I try already such as shopping on the way home from work, but I am often too tired or hungry to make sensible choices; or making a list of items which need replacing before they run out, but I am often interrupted by more immediate demands; or shopping via the internet, but I become irritated by prompts about special offers.  

Either I need a robot to shop and cook and remind me to eat so that I can get on with my work, or I need to be more like a robot myself.  Robots do the tasks they are designed to do and only those tasks, so in this way robots are superior to most humans. I write that quite tongue in cheek, but I do think we could use knowledge of robotics to inform and improve human behaviour.

Let's start with the idea of servicing the mechanism.  A well-serviced robot will move and work to optimum efficiency.  On this basis a human being might need certain medical checks, a regular inventory of mental capacity and a check on the pressure gauge of the emotions.  My guess is that while many people are careful about medical checkups few of us ask ourselves whether our minds are working to full capacity and whether our emotions are being released or contained appropriately.

I do not just mean memory when I refer to mental capacity.  I include the capacity to reason logically, the capacity to take account of different points of view, the capacity to evaluate risks, the capacity to formulate plans of action and to decide on the one most likely to bring the desired outcome, the capacity to accept that there might be a better idea, the capacity to abandon a false theory, the capacity to learn a new skill or a new way of thinking, and the capacity to wonder and be amazed.  Until now I have not asked myself how well I do these mental tasks.  I have not so far attempted to service my brain in order to reach optimum efficiency.

As to servicing my emotions.  Well, apart from being pretty good at knowing what I am feeling and being eager to tell my nearest and dearest all about that, I have only paid real attention to my emotions when they cause me pain and distress or when I suddenly realise that I am happy.  A full service would require me to make decisions about which emotions like irritation, frustration and disgruntlement are wearing away my capacity for emotional balance, like a stone in a wheel.  It would require me to refill my capacity for contentment, pleasure and enjoyment.  Most of all it would require me to check the brakes on emotions like disappointment, self-pity and dissatisfaction.

Our emotions are at the centre of our attitudes.  We are prejudiced against what we fear or dislike.  We are in favour of that which pleases us, and fits with or enhances our self-image.  We often refuse to accept information which does not fit with our established perception or attitude.  Our attitudes cause us to make ridiculous statements like 'all Xs are selfish ', or 'Ys never understand ', or 'Zs always cheat'.  It is our attitude that misleads us into claiming a truth when we are expressing a belief or an assumption.

I believe that we can service our mental capacities through regular checks and challenges and by opening our minds.  And we can service our emotions through balancing our expectations and controlling our impulses.  It is our attitudes and assumptions that are most often in need of up-dating or reprogramming, and some of them need scrapping.

Our attitude formation begins before our mental capacities are fully developed and before we understand our emotions.  Our attitudes are our most long-held beliefs about the world and its people.  If I set out to reprogramme my attitudes I must examine myself in relation to the world and change whatever assumptions and beliefs need to be changed.

At last I have found something that I can do and a robot cannot.  However sophisticated robot technology is now no robot to date has self-awareness, self-consciousness or subjectivity.  It can plug itself into a reprogramming system but that system has been designed by a human mind.  Everything a robot has is part of the design, so it might seem to have the capacity to make decisions and to "change its mind" but that is built in by the designer.

Because you and I are human we have our own measure of self-awareness and our own measure of willingness to change and develop.  I do want to learn from robots and I shall carry on trying to change and develop, but into a better person not a robot.  

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  I would appreciate your thoughts in response.   And if this has stirred up thoughts about free-will and determinism feel free to start off a discussion here.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

My Feminism

I have to write of 'my feminism' because there seems to be a confusion about what feminism is since the wonderful Jill Tweedie died.

Tweedie was a writer of clear thought, wit and humanity, whose column in the Guardian was entitled, "Letters from a Faint-Hearted Feminist".  I used to read her stimulating columns in the 1970s and 80s and feel that she was speaking for all women.

Sally Belfrage wrote, in Jill Tweedie's obituary in The Independent on 13th November 1993 :

"Finely tuned to the most urgent needs of others, she saw everything with dignity and grace, integrity and sense so that we felt good about ourselves, though not in a phony way.  Her feminism, which sprang from the heart of one who loved men, made another kind of sense from the 'wimmin' caricatured by Private Eye and others."

In a tribute the following day, Linda Christmas wrote :

"She reflected the excitement, energy, and optimism of liberal feminists who were prepared to argue their cases with wit and humour ........ not for her the stridency of the radical feminists who were to split the sisterhood and set back the cause."

Liz Forgan, writing in the Guardian in 2000, on the reprinting of Tweedie's book, "The Name of Love", wrote that in her Guardian column Jill Tweedie made :

"a bridge between the revolutionary battlefields of the 70s and the next generation who rightly took their freedom for granted and saw no reason whatsoever to agonize about boiler suits or PhDs."

Today the agonizing would probably not be about boiler suits but about the "pinkification" of life for little girls, as against the real issue of tuition fees.  There are articles of various degrees of seriousness about "What do women want?"  To quote Jill Tweedie herself, what woman want above all is:

"to become real, to discard the mannered feminine mask and to reveal the human being beneath, a person who is neither The Virgin Mary to be put on a pedastal, nor Lillith to be obsessively desired, nor a Martha to wait at table; but simply a person sufficient to herself, with her own talents and inadequacies, her own idiosyncrasies, good, bad or indifferent."

Oh! Dear Jill, I wish it were so.  That is my kind of feminism.  But while millions of women throughout the world are subject to oppression by cultural or religious leaders, or by their own families; while young girls are denied education; while women are exploited or taken into slavery by people who trick them with tales of a better life; while any woman is whipped, stoned, mutilated or executed; I feel that I cannot depend on my kind of feminism any more.

I felt shamed by the schoolgirl who was shot in the face for campaigning for the right for girls to go to school.  Shamed by her courage and by the fact that in my education I never had to face such discrimination against women and girls.

Discrimination does still exist in our country, though not as blatantly.  It is mainly women who work for the minimum wage; and it is women who are under-represented at the highest levels in every aspect of political and business life.  It is usually women who take on the caring tasks for the elderly and infirm in families, even when they have to fit it in with a job.  I know that there are honourable male exceptions, but it is still the case that "carers" are mainly women.

So I have had to revitalise my feminism.  I feel that until all women and girls are able to be, "a person sufficient to herself", feminism should not rest.  Forget debates about the colour pink and heel height and skirt length and ladettes; for some people being a woman is a matter of life or death.

Feminism needs to look at itself and to feel shame.  Shame for the splits, for the nit-picking and for forgetting the sisterhood.

And after the shame comes the work.  Let us write letters of support, let us encourage talented young women without envy, let us join in protest at inequalities and injustices.  Let us give what we can, to wherever women are in need.  Let us be brave, generous and unyielding in the face of oppression, together.

Please let me know what you think.  And if you find yourself in the National Portrait Gallery, look for the photograph of Jill Tweedie with Mary Stott, Polly Toynbee, Posy Simmonds and Liz Forgan; wonderful women all.

Friday, 30 November 2012

What a Wonderful World

All day I have been humming that song and singing the few snatches that I remember.

It has been sunny and crisply cold today.  The sky has had much more than "enough blue to make a sailor a pair of britches" (as my mother used to say), after days of darkness and rain.  In the shops people have been taking their time and pondering the bright stacks of Christmas goods, knowing that there is plenty of time still to prepare for Christmas.  I was pleased that we did not have premature carols or Christmas songs to accompany us along the aisles, plenty of time for that too.  In the butchers we had time for a joke and in the charity shop I handed over my parcel gratefully and then bought a pretty crystal glass.

This evening the young teenagers who gather at the bus stop have gone home early because it is so cold. Although I enjoy their skittishness as they tease and chase each other, laughing and shrieking, I also enjoy the quiet.  The moon is bright in a clear sky.  Hopefully it will be another clear cold day tomorrow, giving us an opportunity to look around us and to enjoy the world and its people.

On the radio this morning I heard a politician speaking about the drains on the NHS and saying that people should be more stoical.  Yes I agree.  We should be prepared to face what life brings us with courage, dignity and acceptance.  That philosophy, sound as it is, is not an excuse for a national health service to fail in its duty to care for all of the people all of the time.  If the NHS needs more money, as of course it does, then careful thought should be given to the allocation of all our national resources and to prioritising the spending.  While vast amounts of money are being spent on remedying the effects of unsuitable contracts awarded to unproven and inefficient firms and on long investigations into bad practice, corruption and cover-ups, it ill behoves politicians to criticise the sick and depressed.

Another philosophy that might help those who ill and upset and depressed and help them to get better is that of Epicurus. According to Anthony Kenny in "Ancient Philosophy", which is the first volume in "A New History Of Western Philosophy":

"The aim of Epicurus' philosophy is to make happiness possible by removing the fear of death, which is the greatest obstacle to tranquillity.  Men struggle for wealth and power so as to postpone death; they throw themselves into frenzied activity so that they can forget its inevitability."

I take this to mean that if we stop allowing the fear of death to cast a shadow over our days then we can enjoy what each day brings. In accepting the inevitable future we can appreciate the present in tranquillity.  I consider that this holds true for all fears of what the future might bring. If we stop the frenzied struggle to avoid what we fear, or to try to bring about what we feel life should be like, then we can appreciate life as it is.  In this way we can savour what life offers, rather than wishing for something more, something better, something different.  

Kenny tells us that for Epicurus, pleasure is the beginning and end of a happy life.  Not the pleasures of hedonism or the satisfaction of desires, but the quiet pleasures of friendship and a simple meal:

"His life and that of his followers was far from luxurious: a good piece of cheese, he said, was as good as a feast."

If your parents like mine said, "enough is as good as a feast", I doubt that they were conscious of staying close to the philosophy of Epicurus.  Mine also said, "Look up and look around you, smile at people, don't sulk and look down at the ground."  Sulking, wanting more, busying ourselves buying more and more material goods and generally being dissatisfied by the life we have is a recipe for unhappiness and ultimately ill health.

Whether it rains or shines tomorrow it is a wonderful world.  There is a cornucopia of goods in the shops but we do not need them all.  In the days leading up to Christmas try to enjoy the pleasure of finding food and gifts for the people you love and the people whose friendship you value.  It is not a race or a competition so take your time and enjoy the choosing.  Whether you buy cheese or china, one good piece is as good as a feast and when it chosen with care and love it is priceless.  

Before I sat down to write this I listened to Louis Armstrong singing "What A Wonderful World" on U tube.  It brought tears to my eyes.  Why not listen too and see how you feel?

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Perhaps you remember having an experience of being overcome by happiness, such as that described by W.B. Yeats in "Vacillation":

"While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes, more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless."

We feel blessed indeed to have felt such happiness, and remembering that feeling helps us at times of sorrow or distress.  Happiness and sorrow are natural landing stages on our human journey.  It is also natural to desire to stay with happiness, and to attempt to avoid sorrow.  Yet wisdom tells us that the current of life flows irrespective of our desires.  However masterfully we steer our craft we cannot change the tides of human experience.  William Blake expresses it thus:

"Man was made for Joy and Woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the World we safely go,
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine."

Such language the poets use!  "Blessed", and "soul divine" indicate the spiritual qualities of happiness and sorrow, of joy and woe.  We are touched by these feelings; we cannot manufacture them.  We must take care of them and respect them.

It is unrealistic to expect to be happy all the time and, thankfully, it is the same with sorrow.  We need to apply reason to these emotions and to accept them for what they are. The most poignant feelings are those where happiness and sorrow are so finely woven as to be inseparable.  Many happy family celebrations are made poignant by the sorrow that beloved members are no longer there.  It is a paradox that one can feel a complete happiness and a complete sadness at the same time.  It is because each state has its own integrity. Equally we cannot choose to enjoy one and deny the other without putting our emotional health at risk.

Another unrealistic and dangerous situation lies in allowing woe to degenerate into despair; or in allowing joy to balloon into euphoria. These states of mind can arise from our inability at times to face the inevitable ups and downs of life.

Aristotle stated that we should train children to face life realistically and to apply reason to even the most troublesome situations.  He believed that happiness came from the wisdom of living a life of reason, virtue and moderation.

Nowadays the most common lack of wisdom, amounting to self-deception, seems to lie in depending on other people for one's own happiness.  A lover, partner or spouse cannot make us happy.  If we feel happy to be with them that is a blessing.  It is even more blessed if they are happy to be with us too.  Thus do many marriages begin.  The joy in a happy marriage lies as much in pulling together and supporting each other through the trials and tribulations of life as it does in celebrating married love and the precious milestones of family life.  To say to someone, "You make me happy," or "You no longer make me happy", is to abdicate responsibility for one's feelings.  It is more honest to say, "I am happy being with you," or "I am no longer happy being with you."

A relatively new phenomenon seems to be the joint illusion amongst citizens and governments in the modern world that happiness is one of the common goods for which government is responsible.  We might blame a misunderstanding of the principle expressed by Jeremy Bentham:

"The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."

This is not happiness as I have been looking at it here.  The modern utilitarian principles are more about equality and justice and access to the common goods such as education, health care and housing.  Instead of "the greatest happiness" we might substitute "the greatest well-being of the greatest number", as a suitable concern of government.  John Stuart Mill himself said,

"Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."

Maybe we need to learn to distinguish between well-being, contentment and happiness.  Happiness is closely linked with joy, and neither emotion can we command at will; it comes upon us and blesses us.  Contentment is a pleasant state that comes from a general sense of satisfaction with life.  Sometimes we can bring this about by hard work and saving but generally it requires us to have a nature that finds most of life agreeable.  Well-being is when we are physically, emotionally and spiritually well.  We do not have well-being if we are sick, hungry, homeless, ill-treated, discriminated against, afraid or in danger.  These wrongs are rightly the concern of government.

But one's own happiness is a matter of being open to being happy, appreciating it while it lasts and carrying the warmth of that happiness around with us even when we are sorrowing.  Aristotle said that we can also find happiness in the happiness of others.  Equally in having happiness in our lives we might also be more able to bring some happiness to others, as Yeats said, "I was blessed and could bless."