Greenwich, bombs and history

I was browsing through the Guardians’ interactive blog page, ‘Comment is Free‘, earlier today and there was an interesting article on the parallels between the current anti-Muslim reactions in the West and earlier reactions to Jewish communities at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  As part of that article there was mention of the 1894 attack on the Greenwich Observatory, just across the road from us here at Greenwich University.  Some further browsing connected me with Mike Davis’ article on the car bomb and the useful reminder of a historical perspective being necessary and vital in any attempt to develop critical thought about the world around us.  (Mike Davis is speaking in London later this month as part of an interesting series of talks being run by the ICA called ‘The new left: then and now’).

I’ve been arguing to my first year ‘Introduction to philosophy’ students that one of the key tasks philosophy can achieve is a degree of empowerment via critical thought.  The very concept of knowledge (classically distinguished as ‘episteme’ or science as opposed to ‘doxa’ or opinion) is used to establish a certain power relation.  The claims of knowledge are more powerful than those of opinion, so goes the argument.   In one sense, of course, this seems incontrovertible – ‘that which we know to be true’ is always to be accepted before ‘that which might or might not be true’ but which, in any case, we do not yet ‘know to be true’.  The role of truth  for most of society, inevitably depends not on truth itself but on this connection of truth and knowledge.  A known truth has a power.  The ability to develop a critical skill, a critical thought, rests primarily on the development of an ability to question how we know what we know.  This, after all, is Plato’s argument in the model of ‘the divided line’ – the knowledge that knows how it is known is superior even to the knowledge that is incontrovertibly true, such as mathematical, deductive knowledge.  For Plato, such knowledge that knows itself is ‘dialectic’ or understanding (noesis) and comes above mere rational thought (dianoia).

In the abstract, of course, this Platonic model might seem persuasive, perhaps even vaguely interesting, but not radical.  It has, however, radical implications.  To begin with, as I suggested in last weeks lecture, the response to claims to knowwledge that are presented to us as incontrovertible are best responded to with a certain sense of humour – the person who is trying to persuade us of their knowledge claims without allowing that knowledge claim to be investigated or questioned is in effect presenting us with something humorous in that it’s quite simply nothing better than a joke.  If the very essence of critical thought is to allow knowledge claims to be investigated in order to know how we know them, then in general a knowledge claim should present itself with caution and openness.   There may be something – unless the knowledge claimer is always claiming omniscience – that they have failed to understand about the very process buy which they came to their knowledge claim.  Knowledge claims that cannot be questioned refuse to allow themselves to be investigated, refuse to allow knowledge of the knowledge claim – and as such are both humorous but also dangerous since they harbour some other motive, usually one of imposing their power on us.  Why should I believe that?  What happens if I believe that?  Who benefits if I believe that?  These are all practical applications of critical rational thought.

In history we can often find clues, such as those suggested above, that indicate either ignorance or deliberate falsehood.  Facts and situations are presented as ‘new’, the current crisis is always ‘nothing like the past’, some new event makes the world ‘a more dangerous place than it’s been before’ – and yet this sort of rhetoric fails to indicate that it has appeared before, that it is not the first time a moral panic has arisen about ‘terrorism’ and political violence, nor the first time it has been associated with a particular religion or community.

In general I like to use a rule of thumb, which is that something I want to believe is the most likely to be the thing that derails my critical rational thought.  To be critical is first of all to be aware that the power that others find in knowledge claims is a power I also find.  This implies that I can be seduced by my own desires to believe something.  It is too easy to accept one argument against another simply because it is easier.  The philosopher, it must be remembered, is not someone who merely tries to find the truth but someone who has a passion for the truth and as was suggested by Nietzsche, this passion might itself lead to error, albeit perhaps a useful error.  The passionate is associated with the body, with something unthinking, uncritical and so the very notion of a passion for truth should alert us to the fact that there is something difficult, perhaps almost paradoxical, in this approach that brings benefits only through a skillful, artful, nuanced capacity to live with this passion.  Such skill can be cultivated precisely through the kind of self-critical aspect that is central to the idea that the highest form of knowledge is that which knows how it knows and in consequence knows at least some of the limits of its own knowledge.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

5 Responses

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  1. Matt Astill
    Matt Astill at |

    Just a quick comment on the truth vs usefulness. I think a characteristic of doing philosophy is that we avoid ‘the very best’ ideals and paradigms to find the truth, incidentally enabling other ideals as though leaving behind a passionate wake. I suggest it’s useful to ‘critical think’ not only about what you think you know, but how you think about what you feel – your everyday notions of morality and decision making – that can be presented as knowledge claims, but can get somewhat sterilised in the expression. I think philosophy is great when it is a process of pulling yourself out of the way you feel about people, yourself and the world, a re-sensitisation. Everything we know is wrong, perhaps, but perhaps also everything we think we feel or don’t think we feel.

  2. Metaphilly
    Metaphilly at |

    I’ve just finished my last two essays – one on Freud and the other on Bergson – one is about how Freud tried to use causal laws to explain our behaviour and the other on intuition. The former brings to light how we confuse states such as ‘knowing’ with causal affects – such as gravity – the latter suggests the connection, no synthesis between intellect, the senses and passion (i.e. emotions/affectivity). If you take the brain to be the body, then the body includes a thinking thing, which is not separate – mind over matter does not seem like a plausible reality –even though we can think it – just as we can think 2 + 2 = 5, but it is an illusion that causes confusion. When I read someone like Bergson, I wonder how such a clever fellow can write some, seemingly, bizarre stuff – such as the idea that we can possess an object – thus avoiding Kant’s more distant learning approach. The illusion is to think there is a causal reason, just as the government wants the causal reason for a terrorist to be religion, or the freedom fighters to state that the causal reason is oppression. But neither are right to any degree, there are reasons why one person would strap a bomb to themselves then kill, but even the dynamics of situation and circumstance will not dictate that, otherwise we all would, just as gravity keeps working even if its had a particularly hard day. When we have a belief that something is right, wrong or at least more right than wrong, there is, I think, a kind of connection of information that happens through intuition, this connection, as Bergson suggested is an ability to merge opposing concepts such as multiplicity and unity, but we must do it without pulling it apart.
    There is a kind of blind spot in our way of thinking, just as Hume suggested with that of cause and effect. There is also attitude, which I suppose is intentionality, if you believe in a god or spirits, you may be more drawn to conclusions that justify your believe, if you want conspiracies, then you need only look over your shoulder, etc. To separate your thinking from yourself is like separating your mind from your body but the interdependence dictates that there is no separation, the captain is the ship, and the ship is the captain. The one thing that science cannot investigate objectively is the human mind in metaphysical terms, which is because ideas are a different kind of material, thus the measuring tools have yet to be or maybe will never be created, by the time we can think critically we are already soaked in intentionality, which guides our intuition, which then pollutes our knowledge. The heart and the head are no different from the captain and the ship, it is value and beliefs that we sail on and if those change it is not because the captain or the ship has won, but because the synthesis of value and beliefs has changed, to change them you need knowledge and passion (may this is all the will really is).
    However to question the information coming in, especially if it smells like propaganda is some other type of sales pitch is never a bad idea, nor is it bad idea to be as honest with yourself as possibly when thinking about why you believe something – are you just selling something to yourself – one more pint, I can justify my behaviour because… But within that thinking, during those moments of epiphany, never fool yourself that you are separating anything from anything, if you think you can, then maybe that is the most pressing question.

  3. Metaphilly
    Metaphilly at |

    I can’t see how thoughts, ideas, etc., are not matter – that is for me the biggest problem – because we know how to deal with the classical idea of matter – neuroscience deals with matter in the classical way, that is why it may only go so far – but a thought, a memory, indeed our ability to imagine, I think, is all done through matter, but I have no idea, certainly not from a scientific point of view, or any other ‘ology’ how this matter is composed – it is like that of water and steel (or even the idea of dark matter), two different composites that work in two different ways; the mind then is, of course, absolutely amazing, but it is no more than a special type of matter – thus hypnosis is matter affecting matter – there is a mind, I experience it, there is a self – I am always at odds with it, but its material rather than non-material . The problem is that although I think this – I can no way prove it. Creativity is also a beautiful event; I see it as a synthesis, just like Bergson’s past always blending into and part of the present, the admixture of ideas creating new ideas, for example when I read something that makes me think, then makes me want to think even more, to question what I have previously taken to be a given – for me – that is a beautiful thing, in fact even in the stale world of maths, physics, etc., I can look at a flower and be really moved by the event – even if this movement is matter on matter – even if this is proved – most of us will not change an inkling – because why would we?

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