Richard Barnett is a poet and a historian. Seahouses, his first collection, came out with Valley Press in 2015, and was shortlisted for the Poetry Business Prize. He taught the history of science and medicine at Cambridge, UCL, and Oxford for more than a decade, and in 2011 he received one of the first Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowships. His history books include Medical London, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Sick Rose, an international bestseller.
Timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the German publication of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Barnett’s latest book Wherever We Are When We Come To The End is an ambitious ‘poetic fantasia on logic, love and war’ and the circumstances of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. In the following interview, we cover Wittgenstein as a wartime writer, poetry and silence, and the pleasures of music as ‘meaning beyond language’.
Start reading about the Athenian philosopher Socrates (c. 470–399 BC), and you will probably be filled with all sorts of questions. He provokes a reaction: critical, comical, challenging, infuriating, Socrates forged a public image, kindled a public reaction, brought philosophical technique before the public eye. It was not so much his ideas that provoked, but rather his brand new way of questioning, challenging, refuting. Even today when reading Socrates’ refutations, we feel a sort of Schadenfreude – a delight in seeing commonplace beliefs, held by some rather important people, challenged so openly. And we have questions. You may find yourself asking different questions from others: that is part of the magic of engaging with the Classical world, each of us in our own way. Take Socrates’ famous claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living”: if Socrates said this to you, what would you ask him, if you had the chance?
Confucius lived in a period of the Zhou dynasty when China had splintered into small, independent, warring states ruled over by feudal lords whose authority was maintained not through moral behavior and genuine concern for the welfare of the people, but through laws, punishments, and force. ‘Confucius (551–479 bce) and his legacy’ shows that many thinkers attempted to address these problems, but Confucius’ socio-political and philosophical teachings did not win immediate, universal acclaim. The Analects, a collection of his teachings recorded by his disciples, achieved its present form in the second century bce. Its two main concerns are: (1) what makes for a good man; and (2) what makes for good government.
Analytic philosophy is a degenerating research programme. It’s been quite a long time since there was anything like a shared project of analysing key concepts or a mutual commitment to the linguistic turn. But the lack of such shared projects in themselves didn’t really cause a problem for the field – here’s a discussion of Rorty cheerfully noting, in 1982, that analytic philosophy is held together mainly by a certain kind of style and sociological bonds among its practitioners. He didn’t think it was a problem, and this more detailed but equally sympathetic metaphilosophical analysis comes to a broadly similar conclusion. It also doesn’t strike me that there is any particular institutional crisis for analytic philosophy beyond the general woes of the humanities right now – and even here we may be doing relatively well. So why do I none the less think that now is a time of woe for analytic philosophy?
We spoke to philosophers Philip Goff and Keith Frankish about their popular new online show, Mind Chat, in which they interview scientists and philosophers on the mystery of consciousness.
John Corvino argues that the claim “That’s just your opinion” is pernicious and should be consigned to the flames.
The philosopher Stuart Hampshire served in British military intelligence during the Second World War. When we were colleagues at Princeton he told me about the following incident, which must have taken place shortly after the Normandy landings. The French Resistance had captured an important collaborator, who was thought to have information that would be useful to the Allies. Hampshire was sent to interrogate him. When he arrived, the head of the Resistance unit told Hampshire he could question the man, but that when he was through they were going to shoot him: that’s what they always did with these people. He then left Hampshire alone with the prisoner. The man said immediately that he would tell Hampshire nothing unless Hampshire guaranteed he would be turned over to the British. Hampshire replied that he could not give such a guarantee. So the man told him nothing before he was shot by the French.
There have been few thinkers in the history of philosophy who have divided opinion as completely as Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). For some, he is one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, whose brilliant analyses of the text of philosophy and literature overturned many of the fundamental assumptions of each. To others, he is a charlatan: his honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1992 was opposed in a letter to The Times that accused him of not meeting accepted standards of clarity and rigour. His work, the signatories argued, consisted in no small part of elaborate jokes and puns, making French philosophy ‘an object of ridicule’.