Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 46

Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 45
Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 48

The P E R Group was first muted in 1993, at a philosophical conference at UEA in Norwich.  Its emergence can be interpreted in various ways.  It grew from a small group of people who had at that time been rooting for more than 20 years for a major reform in teaching maths. The reform which was being recommended was based on the US philosopher Charles Peirce’s insight that mathematics is the science of hypothesis. It was a case of a much-needed, fully understood, exemplary reform being cold-shouldered (by the maths opinion leaders) simply because it arose from thinking in philosophy.

So the resistance met by the previous maths reform campaign was simply one example of a general principle. There were all kinds of beneficial, needed reforms in education based on philosophic insights which could be taken-up, but which weren’t being.  The trouble was a deep-seated anti-intellectualism. An example needed to be set: to show vividly what was being missed by endemic anti-intellectualism. It would also show that philosophy could suggest a range of much needed practical improvements.   In addition it was an exercise in maintaining genuine philosophy as a live activity —against the grain of a deeply aphilosophical era. Philosophy regarded as a quest for interpreting the human condition from the widest possible meaningful, coherence-building perspective had thrived briefly after WW2. A bi-polar condition set-in during the late 1940s when religion —as the perspective embodied in authority— was being constantly challenged by new insights generated in science. 

But a singularity happened. The sense of coherence which had seemed to be deeply buried in religion began to crumble. Authority had lost its bite. A flabbiness in authority began to show.   It led to a “post-modern condition” —the essence of flabbiness—   which first appeared in the 1970s. It was a direct consequence of science’s success and also of its failure. Science, regarded as a global perspective, combined two deeply paradoxical features: (a) it had palpably come out on top —the four Whammies had knocked most of the stuffing out of religion, (they were triumphs of biblical significance nowhere mentioned in the Bible) but (b) it, (science), was also palpably not up to the job of delivering a lucid, resonant perspective on the world, especially on the human scene.  Science was mired in hyper-abstract mathematics which many people had already rumbled was going nowhere.

So we are now in a flabby post modern era based on the mantra <<anything goes>> with a loss of any substantive expectation that a resonant meaningful perspective will ever return.  It is very difficult to justify philosophy in the time-honoured sense after such a deep collapse of expectation. As a result the philosophical reflection being articulated in academia seems to have gone to seed. It has become spaced-out, bitty, desultory and hair-splitting.

Life, of course, continues, babies arrive, they grow older… and when they go to school most parents take an interest in how their acquisition of knowledge is going to affect their future joie de vivre. So discussing education in the most general way is a kind of miniature, truncated version of “philosophy”. This, and discussing politics, raise questions fairly similar to those of classic world-view type philosophy. This explains how the P E R group has managed to keep some classic philosophy alive, while we are all passing through a deeply apathetic, unreflective, aphilosophic era.

Today the media is steering much malign reflection towards identity politics and woke issues like the abomination of slavery in the 18th century. The latter is a mode of reflection based on a determination in some angry, bitterly alienated quarters to undermine any feeling of identification we might have with the origins of our UK culture.  But this is the original, the essential, the authentic, job of education. This is what we have education for  —to hold our somewhat ambiguous, floppy culture together by transmitting its core themes to the young generation.

It has already gone much floppier than it used to be.

The Woke Assault is directly inimical to any trace of cultural continuity:  which means any possibility that older and younger generations can talk to each other… and end-up with any kind of mutual understanding. 

It is also nonsensical, because it focuses obsessively on the monstrous aspects of the 18th century, while overlooking some vital advances and the enduring culture which survived it. If the slave trade was something to be very ashamed about —as it was— getting rid of it could only be perceived by the same token as a miracle.  Woke orators have —by their myopic concentration on bits of the picture— hugely increased the repulsion the average person today feels about slavery —but by this token they have also hugely increased the sheer miraculousness of the feeling arising from the banning of it.   It must have looked —according to these woke theorists— absolutely impossible that anyone could ever marginalise it and get it banned. We must remember that the slave trade was a sick, brutal institution of great antiquity: it had been around, bringing misery to the under-class, since the dawn of time.

The problem came to the fore because Newton’s so-called ‘New Philosophy’ had been enormously successful. It wasn’t really a ‘philosophy’ at all, but it was read by the public as an ideology which worshipped iron rules, structures and regimentation. It led inexorably to the Industrial Revolution, and subsequently a huge appetite among the newly rich for sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco etc.  So what happened? Well, unscrupulous  fixers emerged —like today’s people-smuggling gangs— to use slaves to make huge profits from this demand. The UK was a somewhat freer society than its continental neighbours. But the freedom it embraced was two-sided. Yes, there was freedom for the public-spirited minority, but also a de facto freedom for the exploitative fixers.  

Taken all together, this freedom which was around 200 years ago, has done much to create the taken-for-granted felicities of the modern world. It is a major pillar of our culture that we value this freedom. But the downside is that fixers and unscrupulous people did, and still are, initially free to abuse it. Eternal vigilance is needed to counter such aberrations and hence to sustain civilisation.