Monday 1 September 2008

Cultural Sublime (2008)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVI No.2

Or ... Immanuel Kant watching the 9/11 attacks on TV 
By Rob Leurs 

The sublime refers to our responses to everything that is too overwhelming to comprehend, for example, forces of nature such as volcano eruptions or man-made objects like pyramids. According to Immanuel Kant, the observation of such overwhelming matter leads first to a feeling of insignificance and speechlessness, followed by the experience of a feeling of rising above the overwhelming matter.

Kant has always used the sublime to understand responses to singular objects or events. But in our time it is also important to understand responses to media representations, in other words: responses to a multitude of coherent texts and images. As distinct from the classical use of the Kantian sublime we can rename it as the cultural sublime. In this way we can understand, for instance, responses to reports of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The experience of the sublime has been well described by the Dutch cabaret performer Freek de Jonge. Without theorising it or even calling it sublime, he vividly recalled the attacks on the Twin Towers. He described how he was watching television at home and how he experienced the moment in which two airplanes destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. About that moment he said:
Try to recall that moment. It was an almost religious moment. It was an orgasmic instant. For a brief while there was no past, there was no future; one stood there completely empty in 'the now'.

Cabaret performer De Jonge illustrates what can by understood by the sublime: it is a discontinuation of the narrative of our life course. There is something that breaks through all normal human boundaries. The common forms are broken through. In that instant there is no longer any grip, or as De Jonge puts it: 'one stood there completely empty in the now'. But besides the possibility of being disturbed (in the breaking of the forms), the sublime has a second aspect: it also includes the possibility of overcoming the disturbance. De Jonge powerfully sums up that second aspect: 'It was an orgasmic instant'. For those safely seated behind their television screens it was an orgasmic instant, but not for someone on the sixtieth floor of the WTC; he or she would only experience real fear of dying, which does not qualify as sublime because it is not followed by relief.

The sublime therefore consists of two aspects: a disturbance and the overcoming of that disturbance. We feel powerless or small because of something that is stronger or larger than us. But we also experience a feeling of pleasure which is sublime when it results in happiness or understanding. Sometimes this pleasurable feeling produces an abstract experience of 'the otherness'.

Kant discusses the sublime in his third Critique (The Critique of Judgement). According to him it comes in two ways: as mathematical (a form of immeasurability) and as dynamical (a form of powerfulness). The mathematical sublime is an experience of overwhelming vastness; it is caused by objects that appear infinitely large. The dynamical sublime is an experience of overwhelming power brought about by objects that seem to have absolute power over us.

The mathematical sublime

Kant discusses the mathematical sublime more extensively than the dynamical sublime. He illustrates the mathematical sublime with the example of a pyramid: it takes time for your eye to go from the base to the top (if you are near the object). During that time some parts of your observation will disappear from your imagination. And as you still have to observe later parts you can never fully comprehend the pyramid. The imagination has to completely perceive an object that is too large to observe as a whole. The normal functioning of bringing order and consistency to the sensory perception fails: a pyramid crosses the limits of what the imagination can perceive in one go. We cannot get an overview of the pyramid. This brings about a feeling of displeasure; imagination is confronted with theoretical Reason. Theoretical Reason regulates: it marks the rules that direct our experiences so that we can achieve absolute unity in our knowledge. Theoretical Reason is not constitutive: it cannot produce experience itself. (This is contrary to practical Reason: this is constitutive as it is itself capable of calling the reasonable reality into being.)

The feeling of displeasure is succeeded by pleasure: although we cannot perceive a pyramid as a whole, we are still able to think it as a whole. We can overcome this flaw in sensory perception as theoretical Reason can think the absolute totality. We are above the sensory world due to theoretical Reason. In short, the mathematical sublime is about Reason, which is in contrast to the dynamical sublime.

The dynamical sublime

Some examples of the dynamical sublime are overhanging rocks, volcanos and thunderclouds. We experience these objects as frightening. This time imagination is not confronted with theoretical but practical Reason. This is the moral aspect of Reason. A feeling of displeasure arises because we perceive the frightening phenomenon as something that can destroy us. But then pleasure occurs: although a volcano can physically destroy us it can never endanger our humanity: we are rational beings and therefore, in moral respects, we are free. Fear caused by, for instance, volcanos makes us realize that we are more than nature; nature can bring about fear but because we are morally gifted we are superior to nature.

Although not everyone experiences the feeling of a moral destination - according to Kant you have to be morally cultivated in order to experience that feeling - the foundations are present a priori in every human being. Where the mathematical sublime is about reason, the dynamical sublime concerns respect for the moral law. (The moral law is our knowledge of the difference between good and evil and our inner conviction that we must do what's good. It is located in practical reason.)

The mathematical sublime occurs when an object is too large to be perceived as a whole, while the dynamical sublime is caused by frightening phenomena. In both instances displeasure is succeeded by pleasure: the mathematical sublime indicates that we can make use of theoretical Reason and the dynamical sublime reveals a respect for the moral law within us. In both cases we are superior Reason-able creatures: subject to Reason and to moral law.

In considering the sublime responses to media representations of e.g. 9/11, it is appropriate to rename the concept of the Kantian (aesthetic) sublime as the cultural sublime. This is an analogy: it both resembles and differs from Kant's sublime. It is similar in that it makes shocking experiences bearable by adopting an attitude of moral superiority. It is new, however, in that this process takes place within the media instead of within the arts or nature.

The most important difference is that Kant's aesthetic sublime is an experience brought about by a singular object e.g. a pyramid, a volcano or an ocean. The cultural sublime is the consequence of coherent texts and images or a media discourse. Nietzsche (in The Birth of Tragedy) already describes this functioning of culture in other terms. He understands the Dionysian dimension to be the terrible subsoil of existence. The Apollonian dimension, made up of art and culture, functions so as to create a protecting Schein (appearance) against the Dionysian terrors: the terrible is transformed into beauty. Beauty is then what has become bearable. This way one can argue that there are degrees to the terrible: the entirely terrible (the unbearable Dionysian dimension), the little less terrible (the sublime that makes the terrible just bearable by adopting an attitude of moral superiority) and the least terrible (artistic and cultural beauty as a counterbalance to the terrible, in other words: the Apollonian dimension). In short, the cultural sublime is at the centre of our media society: by definition media will turn the unbearable terrible into texts and images that are just bearable, simply by providing us with representations of an event instead of the event itself.

Bronowski: Enduring Optimism (2008)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVI No.2

An Appreciation of Jacob Bronowski

By Anthony James 

An article by Matthew Reisz, in Times Higher Education (23.1.2008),  about Lisa Jardine and her father Jacob Bronowski, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, gave some very welcome attention to a great intellectual who has been too often ignored in Britain since his death in 1974. Bronowski's contribution to contemporary philosophy has been particularly underrated in this country, despite the fact that his optimistic scientific humanism remains with us like a mountain in the shifting mists of intellectual fashion and taste, largely because we have never really found a tenable philosophy to replace it. However much science and scientific endeavours are misunderstood by the public, our world cannot dispense with science, and the life of society and most individual lives cannot continue without some idea of ascent, adventure and improvement, so that even politicians, pessimists and cynics have to pay lip service to these ideas.

In America, Bronowski's reputation stands much higher and his book of essays on epistemology, The Identity of Man is still in print as a volume in the Prometheus Books (New York) series of philosophical works. Here, Bronowski is quite explicit about his intentions:
'In this form, what I shall construct by way of an answer is a philosophy for modern man ... I mean a total philosophy which shows how a man thinks and feels, how he makes his values, what man is which integrates afresh the experiences which always have been and are human.'
We may now regret his gender-biased language but delight in how clearly and engagingly he writes. Throughout The Identity of Man, Bronowski is concerned with describing his radical concept of the self. Bronowski sees the essential self of each human being not as a static thing, but as a process, a process of accumulating experience arranged toward future action that is, knowledge. He shows us that both science and literature originate in the imagination; however, scientists try to minimize ambiguity when they record their findings, while literature relishes and exploits ambiguity. Further, the human capacity to produce literature and to respond to literature opens another mode of knowledge, which we do not know how to feed into any machine whose principle of operation we can now conceive. We learn from it an enlargement and a sharpening of our sympathy; we enter the contraries of the human predicament more fully. This distinction between human beings and machines seems to me a real and profound one, even in these days of advanced artificial intelligence, over forty years after Bronowski wrote these words.

Reading Bronowski as a philosopher reminds us how science is too often ignored or misunderstood in modern philosophy, though Karl Popper is among the honourable exceptions to this tendency. The idea that induction in science consists of repeated observations of a phenomenon, heaped up until a generalization can be made, often assumed, is a notion that Bronowski exposes as false. Science is not like this, scientists do not predict that the sun will rise tomorrow because they have observed it rising on many previous occasions, they try to formulate profound laws that will include and explain the rising of the sun. Every scientific experiment worth making forms part of a connected view of the world and the results of the experiment will be judged by referring to that connected view.

We may guess that Bronowski would have had little sympathy with the suggestion made by Colin McGinn recently that the way in which our physical, material brain tissue can give rise to our consciousness, our sense of self, may be something that we are simply unable to understand and are not equipped to understand. Undoubtedly, Bronowski would remind us that we do understand something about how consciousness and sentience are related to material brain tissue (although we understand very little at present) or there would be no phenothiazine tranquillizers to treat psychosis and no drugs that act on the acetylcholine and glutamate levels to treat Alzheimers disease. He would also have reminded us that science is a language for describing the world just as poetry is, but no language is free from ambiguity, therefore, we will never know with certainty how the brain works, but the scientific pursuit of truth will yield a richer, more detailed, more inclusive description of the brain in the future.

The author of The Identity of Man would have had no sympathy whatsoever with postmodern notions of relativism, so wittily dealt with by another intellectual celebrity who came to Britain from central Europe, the historian Eric Hobsbawm. This fashionable notion urges us to accept that objective reality is inaccessible to us and therefore every view of the world and every view of the past is a mental construct, one construct being as valid and as factual as another. A view of the world according to which the Holocaust never happened, Elvis Presley is still alive, and the earth is flat is no doubt real enough to those who believe in it, but as a description of reality it explains very little and excludes a great deal. Certainty is beyond us, as Bronowski kept reminding us, and every account of the world contains a fair amount of uncertainty, but it in no way follows that one account is as good as another.

In the last chapter of The Ascent of Man, Bronowski strikes an uncharacteristic note of caution and alarm. 'And I am infinitely saddened to find myself surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into ... into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery.' Today, he might add religious fundamentalism, neo-conservatism and falsely profound questions about whether objective truth is attainable to his list. The world of 2008, a hundred years after his birth would also have saddened him, but we get the sense from everything he wrote that his optimism would not have been quenched. He could be direct and brilliant in his insights in a way that might (and should) make some of the historians and political commentators of today feel ashamed. Of course, it is tempting to close ones eyes to history, and instead to speculate about the roots of war in some possible animal instinct: as if, like the tiger, we still had to kill to live, or, like the robin redbreast, to defend a nesting territory. But war, organised war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and co-operative form of theft.

The Identity of Man not only sets out a radical concept of the self, but also an ethical approach to life based on science. Bronowski points out that scientists have a common duty to seek the truth, though they arrive at knowledge and never at certainty, and he also reflects that for the first time in history there is a professional body of individuals within society, doing practical and indispensable work, to set an example of integrity in seeking the truth. It is upon this example that Bronowski's ethical approach is based, as well as upon the other mode of knowledge that comes from literature and art, an equally important knowledge, an enlargement and sharpening of our sympathy. Science, and modern physics particularly, shows that there is an element of uncertainty in every description of the world, and a certain tolerance in the engineering and scientific sense of the word must be built into every scientific statement. Bronowski urges us to look to science and to literature as constant reminders of the need for tolerance in its social and ethical sense.

No loyalty is enough, no bright sense of mission, no righteous conviction that our opponents are not merely wrong but perversely wrong they really know better. A nation cannot be run that way, and the world cannot. We cannot personify states as if they were men, and have them treat their rivalries as if they were love affairs ... There is another set of virtues, which is founded on the central value of truth, and which is denied when truth is denied. But there is this disparity: that in our culture, truth does not carry the passionate assent that the intimate values do. We live by human links, and it matters more to us that others share our beliefs than that they be true. So somehow falsehood (and even deception) does not have the personal air of outrage that, say, disloyalty has; perhaps, we say, it is only an error. We are willing to treat a lie in private life as an act of kindness, and in public life as an act of policy. Written, as they were, by a man born in Poland in 1908, these words are unnervingly relevant to our world of today.

The Bones of Buddha (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVI No. 2


Six Aphorisms from Joseph Reich

Joseph Reich: is a social worker who works out in the state of Massachusetts; A displaced New Yorker who sincerely does miss diss-place, most of all the Thai Food, Shanghai Joe's in Chinatown, the fresh smoothies on Houston Street, and bagels and bialys of The Lower East Side...

  Aphorism #3
existence eventually becomes
who can cope and adapt the
best with the emptiness
the psychologists like to
refer to this as growth
and development
i'm not
so sure i
agree with this
most people fail 
greatly at this endeavor
and try to one up their neighbor.
Aphorism #4 it is only when we are constantly
surrounded, overwhelmed by these
vampires and vultures (of pure self-interest,
petty people with weak egos playing see-through 
roles, and absolutely no code of ethics or morals) 
that we are forced to question the overall meaning, 
point and purpose of our existence, our time and 
place on earth, feel excruciatingly lonely, and
start to naturally conceptualize from all these 
transparent lies and soulless crimes our 
eventual mortality and ultimate demise.
Aphorism #15 i always got caught somewhere
between 'psychology' and 'philosophy' 
between the way things are and the way
things should be, what do you call that? 

Aphorism #16 so hard to keep up these games
of sanity, of vanity, pretty
unconvincing role-play
from the hole
of humanity.
Aphorism #22 i used to have this philosophy professor back in college
who on the first day of class came in without his shoes on
looking like he had just got off some bad trip and mumbled -
i couldn't seem to locate my sneakers this morning -then
proceeded to make this half-crazed declarative statement
something like -almost everything we think we think of
is wrong -and if in fact that is true then should we not
then put far more credence and meaning on natural instincts,
attraction, intuition, premonitions, feelings, beliefs, physicality,
hunches, spirit, smells, sounds, images, memories,
moods, and most important of all, our dreamworld?
he was a pretty decent guy
and said -i'll try to find
my shoes for next time -
my wife pokes her head out the door -
i think everyone blew out their pumpkins.
Aphorism #47 my fiddle has shattered!
they bring up the blinds 
of the blindfolded castle 
and like some miracle 
a shaft of sunlight breaks
through the big windows
of the n.y. public library 
bathing the long honey 
mahogany tables while
some wino naturally lifts
weary eyes to sunlight
providing a long sigh of
relief from life breaking
up the miserable every-
day rituals and routines.
your light comes up on
the great big scoreboard
and you get all excited like
you have finally been called
after several years of being ignored
picking up your shrink-wrapped scrolls
to help piece together pieces of your shattered
soul as though you are the big winner at bingo.

The Bones of Buddha (a longer collection of aphorisms) was written specifically in the genre of one long philosophical poem, set up or structured in a cluster of poetic 'aphorisms,' most notably, pithy psychological and philosophical proverbs, addressing the often perverse and paradoxical nature (confounding and contradictory ways) of man, who's philosophical origins and style derived and can be traced to the great French philosopher, La Rochefoucald ('Maxims'), who's common subject and theme touched on the natural 'self-interest' of man, and later on in the twentieth century, profoundly influenced and picked up by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche with his clever, acerbic, but nihilistic 'will to power' grouping of aphorisms.

About the author:

Joseph Reich: is a social worker who works out in the state of Massachusetts; A displaced New Yorker who sincerely does miss diss-place, most of all the Thai Food, Shanghai Joe's in Chinatown, the fresh smoothies on Houston Street, and bagels and bialy*s of The Lower East Side...

Address for correspondence:

Thursday 1 May 2008

The Role of Light in Philosophy (2008)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVI No.1

By Manoj Thulasidas

Reality, as we sense it, is not quite real. The stars we see in the night sky, for instance, are not really there. They may have moved or even died by the time we get to see them. This unreality is due to the time it takes for light from the distant stars and galaxies to reach us. We know of this delay.

Even the sun that we know so well is already eight minutes old by the time we see it. This fact does not seem to present particularly grave epistemological problems - if we want to know what is going on at the sun now, all we have to do is to wait for eight minutes. We only have to 'correct' for the distortions in our perception due to the finite speed of light before we can trust what we see. The same phenomenon in seeing has a lesser-known manifestation in the way we perceive moving objects. Some heavenly bodies appear as though they are moving several times the speed of light, whereas their 'real' speed must be a lot less than that.

What is surprising (and seldom highlighted) is that when it comes to sensing motion, we cannot back-calculate in the same kind of way as we can to correct for the delay in observation of the sun. If we see a celestial body moving at an improbably high speed, we cannot calculate how fast or even in what direction it is 'really' moving without first having to make certain further assumptions.

Einstein chose to resolve the problem by treating perception as distorted and inventing new fundamental properties in the arena of physics - in the description of space and time. One core idea of the Special Theory of Relativity is that the human notion of an orderly sequence of events in time needs to be abandoned. In fact, since it takes time for light from an event at a distant place to reach us, and for us to become aware of it, the concept of 'now' no longer makes any sense, for example, when we speak of a sunspot appearing on the surface of the sun just at the moment that the astronomer was trying to photograph it. Simultaneity is relative.

Einstein instead redefined simultaneity by using the instants in time we detect the event. Detection, as he defined it, involves a round-trip travel of light similar to radar detection. We send out a signal travelling at the speed of light, and wait for the reflection. If the reflected pulse from two events reaches us at the same instant, then they are simultaneous. But another way of looking at it is simply to call two events 'simultaneous' if the light from them reaches us at the same instant. In other words, we can use the light generated by the objects under observation rather than sending signals to them and looking at the reflection.

This difference may sound like a hair-splitting technicality, but it does make an enormous difference to the predictions we can make. Einstein's choice results in a mathematical picture that has many desirable properties, including that of making further theoretical development more elegant. But then, Einstein believed, as a matter of faith it would seem, that the rules governing the universe must be 'elegant.' However, the other approach has an advantage when it comes to describing objects in motion. Because, of course, we don't use radar to see the stars in motion; we merely sense the light (or other radiation) coming from them. Yet using this kind of sensory paradigm, rather than 'radar-like detection,' to describe the universe results in an uglier mathematical picture. Einstein would not approve!

The mathematical difference spawns different philosophical stances, which in turn percolate to the understanding of our physical picture of reality. As an illustration, suppose we observe, through a radio telescope, two objects in the sky, with roughly the same shape, size and properties. The only thing we know for sure is that the radio waves from these two different points in the sky reach us at the same instant in time. We can only guess when the waves started their journeys.

If we assume (as we routinely do) that the waves started the journey roughly at the same instant in time, we end up with a picture of two 'real' symmetric lobes more or less the way see them. But there is another, different possibility and that is that the waves originated from the same object (which is in motion) at two different instants in time, reaching the telescope at the same instant. This possibility would additionally explain some spectral and temporal properties of such symmetric radio sources. So which of these two pictures should we take as real? Two symmetric objects as we see them or one object moving in such a way as to give us that impression? Does it really matter which one is 'real'? Does 'real' mean anything in this context?

Special Relativity gives an unambiguous answer to this question. The mathematics rules out the possibility of a single object moving in such a fashion as to mimic two objects. Essentially, what we see is what is out there. Yet, if we define events by what we perceive, the only philosophical stance that makes sense is the one that disconnects the sensed reality from the causes lying behind what is being sensed.

This disconnect is not uncommon in philosophical schools of thought. Phenomenalism, for instance, holds the view that space and time are not objective realities. They are merely the medium of our perception. All the phenomena that happen in space and time are merely bundles of our perception. In other words, space and time are cognitive constructs arising from perception. Thus, all the physical properties that we ascribe to space and time can only apply to the phenomenal reality (the reality of 'things-in-the-world' as we sense it. The underlying reality (which holds the physical causes of our perception), by contrast, remains beyond our cognitive reach.

Yet there is a chasm between the views of philosophy and modern physics. Not for nothing did the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, wonder, in his book Dreams of a Final Theory, why the contribution from philosophy to physics had been so surprisingly small. Perhaps it is because physics has yet to come to terms with the fact that when it comes to seeing the universe, there is no such thing as an optical illusion - which is probably what Goethe meant when he said, 'Optical illusion is optical truth.' The distinction (or lack thereof) between optical illusion and truth is one of the oldest debates in philosophy. After all, it is about the distinction between knowledge and reality. Knowledge is considered our view about something that, in reality, is 'actually the case.' In other words, knowledge is a reflection, or a mental image of something external, as shown in the figure below.

In this picture, the black arrow represents the process of creating knowledge, which includes perception, cognitive activities, and the exercise of pure reason. This is the picture that physics has come to accept. While acknowledging that our perception may be imperfect, physics assumes that we can get closer and closer to the external reality through increasingly finer experimentation, and, more importantly, through better theorization. The Special and General Theories of Relativity are examples of brilliant applications of this view of reality where simple physical principles are relentlessly pursued using formidable machine of pure reason to their logically inevitable conclusions.

But there is another, alternative view of knowledge and reality that has been around for a long time. This is the view that regards perceived reality as an internal cognitive representation of our sensory inputs, as illustrated below.

In this view, knowledge and perceived reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate. What is external is not the reality as we perceive it, but an unknowable entity giving rise to the physical causes behind sensory inputs. In the illustration, the first arrow represents the process of sensing, and the second arrow represents the cognitive and logical reasoning steps. In order to apply this view of reality and knowledge, we have to guess the nature of the absolute reality, unknowable as it is. One possible candidate for the absolute reality is Newtonian mechanics, which gives a reasonable prediction for our perceived reality.

To summarize, when we try to handle the distortions due to perception, we have two options, or two possible philosophical stances. One is to accept the distortions as part of our space and time, as Special Relativity does. The other option is to assume that there is a 'higher' reality distinct from our sensed reality, whose properties we can only conjecture. In other words, one option is to live with the distortion, while the other is to propose educated guesses for the higher reality. Neither of these choices is particularly attractive. But the guessing path is similar to the view accepted in phenomenalism. It also leads naturally to how reality is viewed in cognitive neuroscience, which studies the biological mechanisms behind cognition.

The twist to this story of light and reality is that we seem to have known all this for a long time. The role of light in creating our reality or universe is at the heart of Western religious thinking. A universe devoid of light is not simply a world where you have switched off the lights. It is indeed a universe devoid of itself, a universe that doesn't exist. It is in this context that we have to understand the wisdom behind the statement that 'the earth was without form, and void' until God caused light to be, by saying 'Let there be light.'

The Koran also says, 'Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,' which is mirrored in one of the ancient Hindu writings: 'Lead me from darkness to light, lead me from the unreal to the real.' The role of light in taking us from the unreal void (the nothingness) to a reality was indeed understood for a long, long time. Is it possible that the ancient saints and prophets knew things that we are only now beginning to uncover with all our supposed advances in knowledge?

There are parallels between the noumenal-phenomenal distinction of Kant and the phenomenalists later, and the Brahman-Maya distinction in Advaita. Wisdom on the nature of reality from the repertoire of spirituality is reinvented in modern neuroscience, which treats reality as a cognitive representation created by the brain. The brain uses the sensory inputs, memory, consciousness, and even language as ingredients in concocting our sense of reality. This view of reality, however, is something physics is still unable to come to terms with. But to the extent that its arena (space and time) is a part of reality, physics is not immune to philosophy.

In fact, as we push the boundaries of our knowledge further and further, we are discovering hitherto unsuspected and often surprising interconnections between different branches of human efforts. Yet, how can the diverse domains of our knowledge be independent of each other if all knowledge is subjective? If knowledge is merely the cognitive representation of our experiences? But then, it is the modern fallacy to think that knowledge is our internal representation of an external reality, and therefore distinct from it. Instead, recognising and making use of the interconnections among the different domains of human endeavour may be the essential prerequisite for the next stage in developing our collective wisdom. 

Box: Einstein's Train

One of Einstein's famous thought experiments illustrates the need to rethink what we mean by simultaneous events. It describes a high-speed train rushing along a straight track past a small station as a man stands on the station platform watching it speed by. To his amazement, as the train passes him, two lightening bolts strike the track next to either end of the train! (Conveniently, for later investigators, they leave burn marks both on the train and on the ground.)

To the man, it seems that the two lightening bolts strike at exactly the same moment. Later, the marks on the ground by the train track reveal that the spots where the lightening struck were exactly equidistant from him. Since then the lightening bolts travelled the same distance towards him, and since they appeared to the man to happen at exactly the same moment, he has no reason not to conclude that the lightening bolts struck at exactly the same moment. They were simultaneous.

However, suppose a little later, the man meets a lady passenger who happened to be sitting in the buffet car, exactly at the centre of the train, and looking out of the window at the time the lightening bolts struck. This passenger tells him that she saw the first lightening bolt hit the ground near the engine at the front of the train slightly ahead of when the second one hit the ground next to the luggage car at the rear of the train.

The effect has nothing to do with the distance the light had to travel, as both the woman and the man were equidistant between the two points that the lightening hit. Yet they observed the sequence of events quite differently.

This disagreement of the timing of the events is inevitable, Einstein says, as the woman is in effect moving towards the point where the flash of lightening hit near the engine -and away from the point where the flash of lightening hit next to the luggage car. In the tiny amount of time it takes for the light rays to reach the lady, because the train moves, the distance the first flash must travel to her shrinks, and the distance the second flash must travel grows.

This fact may not be noticed in the case of trains and aeroplanes, but when it comes to cosmological distances, simultaneity really doesn't make any sense. For instance, the explosion of two distant supernovae, seen as simultaneous from our vantage point on the earth, will appear to occur in different time combinations from other perspectives.

In Relativity: The Special and General Theory (1920), Einstein put it this way:
'Every reference-body (co-ordinate system) has its own particular time; unless we are told the reference-body to which the statement of time refers, there is no meaning in a statement of the time of an event.'

About the author: Thulasidas is a scientist from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), who currently works in quantitative finance in Singapore. He writes regularly for newspapers and magazines, and has published a much discussed book, The Unreal Universe. (See

Philosophy in Schools (2008)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVI No.1


By Martin Cohen and Lisa Naylor

The Philosophical Society of England has long championed 'philosophy in schools', and over the years has published several articles on the topic. In 1952, Bernard Youngman's strategyset out in an article for the Journal, for a philosophical education was copious amounts of Bible study, whereas nowadays Philosophy in Schools is portrayed as a kind of antidote to religion, a position both explored and advocated at book length by Stephen Law in The War for Children's Minds. But at least Law would agree with Youngman that the educator's task involves leading 'the young untutored mind towards love of wisdom and knowledge'. And both follow the philosophical principle that the teacher (in Youngman's words) "must value freedom of thought and revere independence of mind; he must at all times be as Plato so succinctly put it - midwife to his pupils' thoughts".
In the dark days of Madame Thatcher, and the UK of the 1980s, when everyone 'knew the price of everything and the value of nothing', philosophy was out of fashion at all levels of education. But these days Philosophy is undergoing something of a resurgence, particularly in UK schools. Not for nothing did that cynical marketing phenomenon, Harry Potter, designate his first task as 'the search for the Philosopher's Stone'. Because, philosophy, however interpreted, has something about it that is appealing to children, intellectuals and hard-nosed accountants alike.

And even if it is sometimes not quite clear which group is driving it, certainly there are now schools dotted all around Britain dipping at least a small toe into philosophy, from small rural Primaries to large urban Grammars. There are a lot of deep philosophy of education and teaching methodology issues raised by these projects. In particular, philosophy like this (unlike the elitist and stultifying French /Philosophy Bac') is part of the shift away from learning content to towards 'thinking skills', and indeed listening and communication skills. Philosophy for children in this sense is just part of a "creative curriculum", made up out of Music, Dance, and the Arts.

One school that has made a particular campaign out of the approach is a small London primary school called Gallions (in E6) which claims that philosophy has cultivated and encouraged creativity, empathy and a sense of self-worth throughout the school. After reinventing itself in this philosophy-inspired way, it claims to have made enormous progress.

"Regular practice in thinking and reasoning together has had an extraordinary impact on learning, on relationships, and on mutual respect within and beyond the school gates", Gallions says in one of its innovative (read: expensive) publicity materials.

Gallions claims to have found the holy grail of education - active, creative, democratic -somewhere in the, by now fairly well-worn, methods of Matthew Lipman, a professor of philosophy in the United States, branded as 'P4C', along with more recent help from SAPERE a sort of British off-shoot busy selling courses in its methods (including 'masters' degrees at Oxford Brookes University).

Made into a commercial brand by Lipman, 'P4C' is an educational approach which promises to turn children and young people into effective, critical and creative thinkers and help them to take responsibility for their own learning 'in a creative and collaborative environment'.

The method invariably involves a warm-up or 'thinking game', featuring what is rather grandly called 'the introduction of the stimulus' but might more prosaically be counted as the presentation of the lesson's theme. The group are invited to discuss and eventually decide exactly what questions they want to discuss related to this theme.

For younger children, 'thinking games' like these are advocated.
Bring an object in (Use a prop): In this, an everyday object is placed in the middle of a circle of children, and everybody in turn given an opportunity to ask the object a question.

Random words: This time, again working in a circle, each child says a word which must be unconnected to the last word spoken. If someone thinks there is a connection between the words they call out 'challenge!' and must explain the link.
(If you think these are not much of 'games', you should try the ordinary lessons )

Naturally , schools being schools, philosophy starts off with 'rules'. There are rules about speaking - not talking when someone else is talking, about not laughing at other people's ideas - and rules about 'listening - letting people finish, taking 'thinking time' to consider other people's ideas before speaking, and connecting new contributions to points previously made. All this is both virtuous and very practical. If children learn little else at school , they learn ways of intreating with others. Too often, the school environment discourages discussion and collaboration in favour of rigid distinctions between 'right and wrong' points of view and hierarchies of knowledge.

In all this, the teacher is there not to teach, but only as a source of information or occasionally a 'referee' ensuring both fairness and perhaps encouraging (assuming, which is a big assumption, that they are able to distinguish) the most interesting lines of discussion from the rest. In short, they act as as 'facilitators' for the groups' learning. 'In a community of enquiry all the knowledge to be absorbed comes from the children', preach the P4C guidance notes. The aim is that the children teach each other. Their choices are aid to dominate the entire process: they construct the questions they consider interesting about the stimulus, they choose the question they wish to debate, and they decide in what way they want to contribute to the discussion.

As a consequence of all this freedom to decide what to talk about, the adherents of philosophy for children claim that the classes learn how to think and express their thoughts in new and often dramatic ways.

Secondly, as children listen to and learn from each other, they are said to practise and develop 'communication skills, such as empathy, patience and generosity. Both individually and as a group they become attentive and supportive of each other.

Regular doses of 'P4C' are claimed to enable even the shyest children to develop such speaking and listening skills. 'They learn that, in order for them to be heard when they have something to say, they have to listen, and listen carefully, to what others say. The cognitive challenge represented by the stimulus, the facilitation that constantly challenges understanding and pushes for greater depth and clarity, and the thrill of being listened to with interest, causes them to develop their vocabulary and grammar. Children are generally seen to increase the length and complexity of their contributions over time.' (From a P4C Handout for in-service teacher training edited by Lisa Naylor.)

They also acquire a vocabulary for expressing unhappiness, discomfort or frustration, which leads to negotiating with other children instead of expressing their feelings through physical means. Playground interactions change.

All this leads to children spending more time reflecting on ideas, and becoming generally more thoughtful and articulate. The ability to reflect on one's own thinking is, after all, we are told, a feature of very able people. And so, the children's improved self-esteem translates into increased academic achievement.

Mind you, if the approach was really as successful and as transformative as its advocates claim, it would seem a pity to restrict it to the drip-feed of accredited trainers and special conferences. After all, the ideas are as old as the slopes of Mount Olympus, and materials abound promising ways to implement them.

Yet, the would-be philosophy teachers are encouraged to think that introducing creativity, much less philosophy into the classroom, requires additional training - more expertise, not less! Since the UK government privatised education, the Internet is full of sites (such as Independent Thinking Limited) offering 'experts' in education, usually seen as a kind of branch of business management. In places such as this, the experts, fresh from successful careers as insurance salesmen or racing car drivers boast of their outstanding qualities under pictures of themselves on yachts:
Attitude, creativity, taking responsibility, genius, goal setting and much more? All the stuff that he had never been told before but was beginning to wish he had. More to the point, he began to formulate the idea of working with young people to take these ideas into schools around the country. 
 As one teacher trainer puts it. No wonder that all too often the claims made for P4C turn out to be inflated, and that the children describing how they have benefited seem to be repeating new educational mantras rather than finding their own authentic voices.

This all goes against the original 'Socratic' principle that the teacher stays in the background, only occasionally asserting themselves if they feel either that the discussion has left the philosophical arena completely - or alternatively, to encourage further consideration fo an aspect that may have been raised but is not being followed up by the others. They act as 'chairmen' of a debate, not as sources of new information or adjudicators, both roles which rapidly lead to the class becoming passive in the process.

But if school teachers find it difficult to stay in the background and give up their role as final adjudicator, (few teachers indeed have this knack) it is equally the problem for philosophy in Higher Education too. How to democratise and stimulate philosophical debate is very much the themes of recent work on Philosophy for 'big children' in universities and colleges these days - particularly those taking philosophy as a foundation course for a more specialised degree. In the 1990s I was myself involved in research, under George MacDonald Ross at Leeds University (later part of the so-called 'Higher Education Academy'). Here, tactics such as 'proctorials', which are discussion groups structured in a very similar way to the 'P4C groups reign supreme.

Because philosophy with children and Philosophy, 'with a capital P', in seminar groups, shares many of the same characteristics. There is, first of all, a wish to stimulate the group into active discussion of an issue, and that requires 'the stimulus'. Puzzling problems and paradoxes are often attractive to students, whereas children may prefer more 'concrete' examples.

Whatever method is used, the important thing is to recognise that the problems are triggers, not material in themselves, just as philosophy should be a process, not a body of material to be passively learned.

One secondary school teacher, Michael Brett, who introduced philosophy to his classes (with children between 10 and 13) with books of short philosophical problems, found that the ones which worked best with school students were ones where 'pure philosophers' would refuse to go, such as the economic ones in (my own book) 101 Philosophy Problems, featuring eminently 'concrete' issues such as the price of stamps, potatoes etc., alongside more traditional philosophy problems represented however as secular puzzles, such as the barber who couldn't cut his own hair (Russell's paradox) and so on.

Another book Michael Brett tried with his classes, published in America, called The Book of Questions, had, as one would hope, lots of questions - most of which were ethical and which he thought they'd like, but ihis experience was that children basically preferred the 'barber', the 'stamps and potatoes'...

As he later summed it up, this seemed to be because: 
Children like to see a point to what they are thinking about: understanding economics, money etc., or the interest of puzzles. They aren't that bothered about questions that bear little on their lives - as they see them. 
When Lisa Naylor says (see below) that philosophy encourages children to become producers of surprisingly abstract thought, it has to be remembered that these abstract issues have first of all been made 'concrete' by being brought into the classroom as tape recordings or even simple objects.

This fact has to be borne in mind when imagining that philosophy for children is an opportunity to introduce questions with no particular answer, debates with no particular purpose. Philosophy is not just anything goes... Of course, it might be too early to ask, that this should also be borne in mind for philosophers at all levels.

Martin Cohen

Philosophy for Children in a London Primary School

By Lisa Naylor

The experience of classroom teacher and Philosophy novice

My relationship with Philosophy for Children began one June afternoon, in our school hall with my Year 4 class when a philosophy teacher came to the school to demonstrate the method in practice.

The specialist played the children two pieces of 'music': one with bird song and trickling water and another with office sounds and distorted voices. This led to the question: 'What is music?' I felt an overwhelming sense of fascination as I sat and observed this group of children, who I had taught for almost a year, discussing and arguing the question of what music was.

I thought that I was an innovative and creative teacher before this, yet here was someone who was drawing out all these incredibly complex and enthralling arguments with my class. Of course, as a class we talked, but now suddenly there was a forum for talking; a structure. Here, somebody was not only giving permission to spend an hour talking about an abstract subject such as 'what is music?' but providing the tools with which to facilitate meaningful dialogue.

I witnessed children who barely spoke English and children who had very little self-confidence debating fervently whether the sound of rain on the window was or was not music. That was it for me. I was convinced.

The children came out of the school hall an hour later absolutely buzzing. Actually, I'm not sure who was buzzing more; me or the children! The children were desperate to repeat the experience and asked me constantly for the next few weeks 'When are we doing philosophy again?' However, it was approaching the end of the school year and so, apart from talking about the enquiry, we didn't actually get a chance to participate in another session.

The next school year, we decided, as a whole school, that we were going to embrace the approach wholeheartedly and so our first two days back at school in September were spent participating in Lipman's P4C 'level 1' training run (on a commercial basis) by SAPERE. I think it was only when I was a participant myself in a philosophical enquiry that I fully understood the excitement and challenge that the children in my Year 4 class had experienced. As a group of colleagues, we sat and animatedly discussed what art was, the meaning of our existence and a whole host of other issues. I think I learnt more about my colleagues over those two days than I had in the rest of the year put together.

Impassioned by this training, I was very keen to put my newly-learnt facilitation skills to the test on my new Year 4 class. However, things were not so straightforward. My new Year 4 class were an incredibly difficult one. They found it virtually impossible to listen to what other children were saying and in the early weeks, appeared incapable of responding appropriately and non-aggressively to anything that was said. There were a number of children who spent several days a week in a Pupil Support Unit for behavioural issues, as well as a significant number of children engaging in constant low-level disruption.

Due to the difficult behaviour and general attitude of the class, we decided to split the class into two for their weekly philosophy sessions. This enabled us to split up the more disruptive children and gave the quieter children more opportunity to participate. This worked really well for a few weeks and at the children's insistence, it was decided to reunite them for their sessions.
Within a few months, my class's ability to listen and respond appropriately improved almost beyond belief. The children were able to challenge each other's ideas in an assertive and non-aggressive way. They began to show respect for each other as contributors and there was a more co-operative feel to the class. Empathy displayed regularly in the classroom, continued to be displayed in the playground and the children were in trouble outside much less frequently than previously.
 The children developed significantly as critical thinkers, too. The thoughts expressed became increasingly original and the children began to base their judgements on reason. The whole class became more united; the levels of self-confidence rose hugely and everybody who knew the class commented on how different they were. I believe, possibly for the first time, the children felt as though they really were part of a democratic community.

At the end of the school year, the class worked together during playtimes and lunchtimes, to write, direct and act out a short piece of drama, based on bullying. There was no adult involvement in this and what was amazing, was the level of co-operation and teamwork displayed.

I think that what makes 'P4C' so special as an approach to teaching and learning is that there is a real focus on both thinking and interpersonal skills. At Gallions, we have seen standards across the school, including Key Stage 2 SATs results (the main official UK government curriculum measures for Primary schools) rise consistently, since we implemented P4C as a whole school approach. Three years ago, we were ranked one of the bottom schools in the London Borough of Newham for these Key Stage 2 SATs results. Last year, we were in the top twenty. This year we are in the top eight. We are not sure that this is solely down to P4C but we believe the children's ability to link ideas from different curriculum areas and tackle problem- solving issues (in Numeracy, Literacy and science) has improved dramatically , thus raising standards across the curriculum.

One problem that we encountered early on, was how to fit philosophy into a busy primary school curriculum. Our solution was to replace the usual strand of Personal and Social education (PSHE) with the philosophy themes.. We needed to ensure we continued to cover all our PSHE and citizenship objectives by carefully choosing suitable topics. For example, if we were looking at the Rights of the Child, we would use a stimulus which would generate questions on that issue.

Since then, I have witnessed changes I didn't think possible in a very difficult class, as well as a huge rise in self-confidence, self-esteem, levels of articulation, not to mention increased vocabulary, enhanced problem-solving ability and a willingness to take risks.

Running philosophical enquires has completely changed the way I teach, the way the children learn and the way the school is run. As a teacher, I am much more willing now to take risks with my class and less likely to shy away from dealing with difficult or sensitive issues. P4C has strengthened and deepened the relationships I build with the children in my class and given me confidence to not always have the answer.

Philosophy has taught me that there aren't many things in life more important than talking. Not just talking 'chit-chat' but real, purposeful dialogue. Giving children the tools, the language and the opportunity to discuss issues that are really important to them and their lives, is perhaps one of the most important skills we can give.

* Visit our Philosophy Stories site for ideas and resources.
*Gallions Primary School has a number of resources available for interested teachers including a 'Thinking Allowed' DVD. The school also offers courses for teachers interested in using the  'P4C' method in their own classes.

Address for correspondence:
Please contact Martin Cohen through