09 May 2009

weekend notes #5

• Jacqui Smith’s Home Office is fast becoming the laughing stock of Europe. Germany’s premier TV news programme, Die Tagesschau, gleefully referred to the Quickgate affair as “Schlamperei” (one possible translation of the m-word?). The boobs and gaffes have become so regular that they seem to have inspired the creation of a website dedicated to chronicling them. Joanna Lumley may seem an odd choice for Home Secretary, but could she be worse than Smith or any of the other supposedly qualified candidates from inside the government?

• The Daily Mail’s Ephraim Hardcastle column recently poked fun at wealthy author Alain de Botton, quoting an interview in which he piously expressed a fantasy about running a small bakery. A typical bit of nonsense from a member of the pseudo-egalitarian elite, you may think. But EH’s referring snidely to de Botton as a “self-styled philosopher” is silly. Presumably the contrast is with philosophers styled as such by some university, former polytechnic or other seat of ‘learning’.
There are principally two branches of so-called philosophy being done today: the popular and the academic. The former is often facile and usually (like the other) pro-interventionist, but still vastly preferable to the kind of gobbledygook spewed out by the latter in its current form.

L' is language L augmented with the truth predicate ‘true-in-L’, which is ‘mental’. In L (and hence L') it is possible to pick out, with a definite description, each sentence in the extension of the truth predicate, but if L is consistent there exists no predicate of syntax (of the ‘physical’ vocabulary), no matter how complex, that applies to all and only the true sentences of L. There can be no ‘psychophysical law’ in the form of a biconditional ‘(x) (x is true-in-L if and only if x is ∂)’ where ‘∂’ is replaced by a ‘physical’ predicate (a predicate of L).
That was the late and celebrated Donald Davidson, and about as lucid as it gets in mainstream philosophy of mind.*
More recently, there seems to be a new academic fashion to imitate the trendiness of popular philosophy, but with added jargon. Some months ago I heard a podcast interview with a young Oxford don (clearly labelled, thanks to the rigours of the Oxford University employment system, as an accredited philosopher) talking about the supposed philosophical insights of movies such as Blade Runner. I am myself a fan of this film, and concede that it may contain some messages which are worth examining by the usual lit.crit. methods. But turning to Hollywood for insights into the nature of reality is surely a sign that an academic discipline has declined. It may indeed be a symbol of capitulation: “we now admit** that we have metamorphosed into such a bunch of nonsense generators that we can offer less insight than a popular movie”.
One more reason to argue that Oxford Forum is the only genuine university in Britain today. We may not be able to do much, starved of support as we are, but one thing is certain: we would not stoop to doing media studies and passing it off as academic philosophy.

• The other day, a person I know only slightly used the c-word to insult me. Having got mildly peeved by a conversation with me, they said as they departed “just what one would expect from a conservative”. I am not sure whether I am a “conservative” (I appear to be too libertarian for many Conservatives, though also too conservative for some libertarians) but it is interesting what an insult the word has become among all and sundry. The person in question is fairly intelligent and middle-class but does not have a professional post. Nevertheless, they apparently felt entitled to condemn me for having the wrong attitudes, presumably because I do not share the ‘liberal’ outlook which has become something of a religion among the intelligentsia.
Gates of Vienna blogger Dymphna last year wrote this about my blog:
Given [Tassano’s] views, either his work life is very tough or his hide is made of rhinoceros. For an academic to hold such views in the US would be tantamount to career suicide.
I was a little shocked when I first read this: were the things I was saying on the blog really so unacceptable? The answer probably is, yes. Although my lack of progress in mainstream academia had more to do with scepticism about unnecessary technicality (aka gobbledygook) than with ideological incorrectness, it would be surprising if there were no link at all between the views I express and the fact that I am currently an academic exile.
A mediocracy cannot permit genuine dissent. Apart from the fact that its ideology must not be questioned, there is the risk that its high culture will be exposed as valueless. The solution is to create an ethic according to which any deviation from the consensus is treated as opposition to egalitarianism, to progress, and to fairness. The description ‘conservative’ does not necessarily mean much beyond a failure to subscribe to the prevailing cultural shibboleths. However, to be labelled as such becomes anathema in most cultural professions. (Mediocracy, p.59)
• In August 07 I wrote the following, in connection with the plan to force 17-year-olds to stay on at school.
The reason I am far more alarmed by this proposal than by (say) ID cards is that I see it as a way of surreptitiously floating a much larger and more radical notion, namely that coercion is, in principle, an acceptable way to address social problems. ... if people don't object to this proposal on moral grounds, we could easily start to see the coercion idea applied in other areas.
We now have the first signs of the new fashion for coercion, with Dr Brown’s announcement that every teenager must complete at least 50 hours of ‘voluntary’ work by the time they are 19. The age limit of 19 is significant, since it implies a further extension of the government’s power to direct the lives of young people. Even after they have been allowed to leave school at 18, citizens will have to spend their time in accordance with the demands of the state.
Dr Brown makes the new scheme sound like simply another goodie which will be provided, using taxpayers’ money:
“I want everyone to have this opportunity.”
An interesting redefinition for the word ‘opportunity’.
It would be nice if the main ‘opposition’ party spoke out against such outrageous infringements of our liberties. However, apart from announcing that their version of the scheme would not be compulsory, we have only the customary silence, suggesting tacit acceptance of the ideology behind this latest step towards ‘totalitarianism lite’. And the reaction among the media, and the population at large? Merely the usual mediocratic indifference.

• In September, a well-known openly conservative academic (one of the remaining few) commented hopefully on my piece about lack of political choice in Britain today that “there is usually a reversion to hard sense during economic hardship”, referring to the Tories’ recent love affair with Blairism. Has the reversion happened? In a recent speech David Cameron boasted of replacing “Labour’s spendaholic government with a new government of thrift”.
But differences with Labour still seem more rhetoric than reality. Cameron also recently committed himself to protecting spending on that dinosaur of collectivism, the NHS.
No major party yet seems willing to admit that there is no good argument for the state to be involved in the organisation of medicine or education, and that such involvement eventually leads to chaos and breakdown. This has nothing to do with the issue of ‘welfare’, a point which the economics undergraduates I taught at Oxford used to have difficulties with. One can subsidise the use of such services without having to intervene in their running, although the temptation to do so probably becomes quite great. Another point which economics students tend to have difficulties with is that neither education nor medicine are public goods, though many people loosely think of them as such.

* Readers are invited to send in any recent egregious examples of philosophical claptrap they have come across.
** I suspect this particular rot may have started with the 1999 movie The Matrix. It is my impression that academic hostility to the Cartesian dream argument — which offends many analytical philosophers for the same reason that scepticism bothered people like Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle — somewhat abated in response to the popular interest which the movie (and other films about simulated reality such as The Truman Show) generated about the issue. The fact that the academic subject is having to be rescued by pop philosophy and sci-fi movies says something about the state into which the discipline has fallen.