Tag Archives: Laura D’Olimpio

Where to start reading philosophy?

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.

Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.


Shame and Necessity

by Bernard Williams

After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?

However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).

So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.

Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.

It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.

The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.

Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney


The Philosophy Book

by Will Buckingham

Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.

With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.

The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.

The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.

There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.

The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.

This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know

by Ben Dupré

Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.

Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.

The book’s blurb asks:

Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?

It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.

There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.

This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


On Bullshit

by Harry G Frankfurt

When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.

But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.

So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.

Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.

In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.

Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.

The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.

The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University


The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher

by William H F Altman

Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.

Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.

The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).

Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.

The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.

Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.

This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).

But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin


Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Pierre Hadot

This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.

It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.

The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.

Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.

I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:

Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The trolley dilemma: would you kill one person to save five?

The Conversation

Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia

Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.

As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.

However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.

So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

This is the crux of the classic thought experiment known as the trolley dilemma, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of an action and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome.

The trolley dilemma has since proven itself to be a remarkably flexible tool for probing our moral intuitions, and has been adapted to apply to various other scenarios, such as war, torture, drones, abortion and euthanasia.

Variations

Now consider now the second variation of this dilemma.

Imagine you are standing on a footbridge above the tram tracks. You can see the runaway trolley hurtling towards the five unsuspecting workers, but there’s no lever to divert it.

However, there is large man standing next to you on the footbridge. You’re confident that his bulk would stop the tram in its tracks.

So, would you push the man on to the tracks, sacrificing him in order to stop the tram and thereby saving five others?

The outcome of this scenario is identical to the one with the lever diverting the trolley onto another track: one person dies; five people live. The interesting thing is that, while most people would throw the lever, very few would approve of pushing the fat man off the footbridge.

Thompson and other philosophers have given us other variations on the trolley dilemma that are also scarily entertaining. Some don’t even include trolleys.

Imagine you are a doctor and you have five patients who all need transplants in order to live. Two each require one lung, another two each require a kidney and the fifth needs a heart.

In the next ward is another individual recovering from a broken leg. But other than their knitting bones, they’re perfectly healthy. So, would you kill the healthy patient and harvest their organs to save five others?

Again, the consequences are the same as the first dilemma, but most people would utterly reject the notion of killing the healthy patient.

Inconsistent or are there other factors than consequences at play?

Actions, intentions and consequences

If all the dilemmas above have the same consequence, yet most people would only be willing to throw the lever, but not push the fat man or kill the healthy patient, does that mean our moral intuitions are not always reliable, logical or consistent?

Perhaps there’s another factor beyond the consequences that influences our moral intuitions?

Foot argued that there’s a distinction between killing and letting die. The former is active while the latter is passive.

In the first trolley dilemma, the person who pulls the lever is saving the life of the five workers and letting the one person die. After all, pulling the lever does not inflict direct harm on the person on the side track.

But in the footbridge scenario, pushing the fat man over the side is in intentional act of killing.

This is sometimes described as the principle of double effect, which states that it’s permissible to indirectly cause harm (as a side or “double” effect) if the action promotes an even greater good. However, it’s not permissible to directly cause harm, even in the pursuit of a greater good.

Thompson offered a different perspective. She argued that moral theories that judge the permissibility of an action based on its consequences alone, such as consequentialism or utilitarianism, cannot explain why some actions that cause killings are permissible while others are not.

If we consider that everyone has equal rights, then we would be doing something wrong in sacrificing one even if our intention was to save five.

Research done by neuroscientists has investigated which parts of the brain were activated when people considered the first two variations of the trolley dilemma.

They noted that the first version activates our logical, rational mind and thus if we decided to pull the lever it was because we intended to save a larger number of lives.

However, when we consider pushing the bystander, our emotional reasoning becomes involved and we therefore feel differently about killing one in order to save five.

Are our emotions in this instance leading us to the correct action? Should we avoid sacrificing one, even if it is to save five?

Real world dilemmas

The trolley dilemma and its variations demonstrate that most people approve of some actions that cause harm, yet other actions with the same outcome are not considered permissible.

Not everyone answers the dilemmas in the same way, and even when people agree, they may vary in their justification of the action they defend.

These thought experiments have been used to stimulate discussion about the difference between killing versus letting die, and have even appeared, in one form or another, in popular culture, such as the film Eye In The Sky.

In Eye in the Sky, military and political leaders have to decide whether it’s permissible to harm or kill one innocent person in order to potentially save many lives. Bleecker Street Media

The ConversationLaura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Bertrand Russell and the case for ‘Philosophy for Everyone’

The Conversation

Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia

One of the interesting questions we face as philosophers who are attempting to make philosophical ideas accessible for a general audience, is whether or not everyone can or should ‘do philosophy’.

Some philosophers wish to leave philosophy in the academy or university setting. Whereas others claim the downfall of modern philosophy came in the late 19th century when the subject was institutionalized within the research university setting. By condemning philosophy as only appropriate as a serious subject of study, philosophers have lost much widespread support and public recognition for its value.

Philosophers working in the public arena, such as those contributing to The Conversation and Cogito Philosophy Blog will defend the argument in favour of ‘philosophy for everyone’.

Bertrand Russell’s ‘Philosophy for Laymen’

In 1946 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay entitled Philosophy for Laymen, in which he defends the view that philosophy should be ‘a part of general education’. He proposes that,

even in the time that can easily be spared without injury to the learning of technical skills, philosophy can give certain things that will greatly increase the student’s value as a human being and as a citizen.

Clare Carlisle refers to Russell when she writes,

Russell revives an ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life in insisting that questions of cosmic meaning and value have an existential, ethical and spiritual urgency. (Of course, what we might mean by such terms is another issue for philosophers to grapple with.)

We see here the idea of philosophy as a praxis; something that we do, and a way of thinking that is beneficial for every rational human being. As Russell puts it,

To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgment the best discipline is philosophy.

Russell believes that philosophy can be taught to ‘laymen’ readers which will assist them to think more objectively about emotive issues. Carlisle concedes that this is easier to do when one is not faced with a stressful moral dilemma or the burden of making a quick decision while in an emotional state.

Yet, the idea is that we practice the habit of philosophical thinking, and that we get better at it.

Philosophy with young people

I recently attended the 2016 Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations (FAPSA) Conference in Wellington, New Zealand and was struck by the conversation surrounding the idea of what kind(s) of philosophy should be taught to everyone, and particularly to young people.

The presenters and attendees at this conference are all committed to offering philosophy as a subject to school aged children, from ages 3 to 17. I have previously written about Philosophy for Children (P4C) and the benefits of teaching philosophy to young people.

Namely, P4C offers students the chance to learn and practice not just critical thinking skills, but also caring, collaborative and creative thinking skills. It does this using the Community of Inquiry (CoI) pedagogy favoured by P4C practitioners. The CoI involves students engaging in dialogue with one another in an inclusive and democratic manner. Such dialogue is facilitated by their teachers using age appropriate philosophical texts and stimulus materials in the classroom.

But should every student study ‘all’ philosophy?

One of the papers given at the FAPSA Conference, presented by Michael Hand from the University of Birmingham argued that, well, perhaps not. Hand says,

Not only in philosophy, but in all branches of academic study there is a distinction between what has cultural value and what is only of professional interest.

It must be noted that Hand defends the teaching of philosophy to young people and also to offering it as an option for school aged students. He notes that it is ‘easy’ to defend the inclusion of Philosophy as an option on the curriculum because,

  • like other academic subjects, it is an intrinsically worthwhile activity
  • like other academic subjects, it is instrumentally valuable in cultivating intellectual virtues and improving the quality of thinking

Yet, when asked whether we can defend the inclusion of philosophy as a compulsory subject within the curriculum, we would need to prove that it offers every student a distinct benefit that they would not otherwise get.

The distinct benefit gained by studying philosophy

Note that Carrie Winstanley does defend such a claim. She, in a book co-edited with Hand, claims that even if other subjects also teach critical thinking skills, philosophy is the best subject to teach students critical thinking skills, precisely because critical thinking is the essence of philosophy.

Philosophy is the best possible subject for helping children to become effective critical thinkers. It is the subject that can teach them better than any other how to assess reasons, defend positions, define terms, evaluate sources of information, and judge the value of arguments and evidence.

Yet if other subjects also teach critical thinking skills to students, why should we make room in a crowded curriculum for philosophy?

Hand considers this point and suggests that what would be uniquely beneficial for students would be to study moral and political philosophy. He tells us that,

Moral and political philosophy do not, of course, tell us the best way to live. But they do enable us to think more deeply and rigorously about the choices we make and the goals we pursue. And they do justify certain moral and political constraints within which we must make our choices and pursue our goals.

Hand concludes that,

moral and political philosophy confers on those who study it the distinctive benefit of being able to think intelligently about how they will live and the moral and political constraints on their conduct… [and] everyone has a strong interest in this benefit because everyone faces the problem of how to live and the responsibility of complying with moral and political constraints.

This results in an argument in favour of teaching moral and political philosophy as a compulsory subject in schools, even if other areas of philosophy (aesthetics, formal logic, epistemology, and ontology) are additional or optional extras.

Philosophy for everyone

When it comes to who should be doing philosophy, I believe that everyone can ‘have a go’ as reasonable citizens who reflect on the meaning they make of their lives. Yes, philosophy is best suited to the university setting in which experts are trained. Yes, philosophy can be done with children in classrooms. And yes, surely philosophy is something everyone can and should do, albeit at differing levels of competence.

But I am also sympathetic to Hand’s focus on moral philosophy, and ethics in particular. When speaking about ethics, philosophers regain their foothold in the public arena in which they can demonstrate how careful thinking skills can be usefully applied to difficult and complex scenarios.

Sure, there is not ‘one perfect answer’ to these moral dilemmas, but, critical, caring, creative and collaborative thinking skills are valuable in ruling out the worst answers. Such philosophical thinking skills also help guide decision makers towards better policies, public understanding, and widespread engagement with issues that affect people’s lives.

To extend philosophical dialogue into schools and public spaces is to engage and encourage careful consideration of fundamentally important ‘big’ questions that have always occupied human thought. And centrally, these days, those questions are moral and political, as these effect our individual autonomy and our collective humanity.

The ConversationLaura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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