Philosophers for Brexit

I read on the news this morning that Britain’s military establishment (or, rather, Britain’s former military establishment) has come out in favour of Brexit. Dozens of former generals have signed a letter arguing that what matters when it comes to defence of the realm is NATO not the EU.

Historians have come out for In. Actors, artists and other luvvies have come out for In. Economists have come out for both, of course, but what should we expect? It is the fashion for groups of all kinds to hold hands and write to The Times in favour of either In or Out. Where do campanologists stand? Ornithologists? Kleptomaniacs? Nymphomaniacs? Meteorologists? Numismatists? Philatelists? Dog lovers?


But another very important group has also nailed its colours to the mast today. Less well reported, but surely of greater import,  is a letter in today’s edition of Mind, the journal of the British philosophical establishment, signed by members of Britain’s philosophical community (note that there is no such thing as a former philosopher, unless you mean a dead one). They have come out, albeit quietly, for Out. Entitled ‘But it doesn’t mean anything’ the letter decries the philosophical assumptions on which the EU is built.

Brian Goodlittle, Reader in Philosophical Energetics at Bradford University says, ‘I was approached by the editor of Mind and was asked to sign this letter. I did so enthusiastically. I am fundamentally opposed to the continental drift of modern European philosophy. It favours meaningless nonsense so it’s not actually philosophy at all. I favour the bracing style of British Empiricism. It admits no blather, no metaphysical indecency. During the Second World War British Empiricism was one of the fiercest weapons in our intellectual arsenal. It had few uses on the front line, admittedly, but it helped us to break the Enigma code and, with the help of the Yanks, to build the Bomb, whilst the Nazis were literally dreaming up nonsense. It would be a disgrace if we gave in now to continental so-called philosophies such as phenomenalism, existentialism, structuralism and other forms of poppycock. French philosophy, in particular, is a load of merde, in my opinion. It reeks of garlic and doesn’t make a single iota of sense. Let’s face it, Mate, what does ‘European Union’ mean anyway?’

Another eminent philosopher, Fiona Fruitington, Professor of Radical Empiricism at Northampton University, has calculated that works of continental philosophy weigh on average four times as much as works by British philosophers. ‘Being and Nothingness,’ she says, ‘I would rather read a DIY manual on shelving. EU law is just the same. Voluminous, meaningless and impractical.’

British philosophy has for centuries been tethered to good old common sense. You can only understand a statement if it can be verified, Alfred Ayer told us (though he could never quite explain how this claim could itself be verified). Austrian born British philosopher Karl Popper turned the same idea on its head and said that something only makes sense if it can be falsified (science proceeds that way, he pointed out, rather than by verification, but he never clarified exactly how his own claim could be falsified).

The greatest of them all, my hero Ludwig Wittgenstein, said we must look at how we come to understand language and the meaning of the terms it contains. We must examine language ‘games’ in real human communities (though I don’t think he had the EU in mind). Continental nonsense, and most of what the EU has to say, he would describe as ‘language gone on holiday’, ordinary words extrapolated way beyond their safe and practical usage. The role of the philosopher, he believed, is to show the fly the way out of the bottle, the fly being the ordinary man or woman befuddled by EU terminology.

‘Ever greater union.’ What does ever actually mean, Wittgenstein might ask. How have we come to agree, as a community of minds, on its deployment? And how could we begin to understand the many meanings of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘subsidiarity’?

I have great sympathy for philosophers, but in the end I’m not with them on this. When it comes down to it the vast majority of them don’t know how to boil an egg.


In Support of Apple


Rights are often in conflict and there’s no reliable calculus that determines which of them should prevail. That’s because rights aren’t about utilitarian calculation. They’re a fly in the ointment of the collective, an essential counterbalance to the crude maximisation of human happiness and the crude minimisation of human suffering, which, if you’re just subtracting one from the other, can justify appalling cruelty to an individual as long as the sum of happiness is great enough.

Rights are fundamental to any moral theory; without them there wouldn’t be anything to get started with. It’s rights that establish human inclusion in whatever utilitarian calculation might be begun, and limit the applicability of its result. Animals, too, have the right to moral consideration.

Where do rights come from? Legal rights come from the law, whether from a founding document such as a Bill of Rights or a Constitution, or in some legal systems, from preceding judgements. But legal rights depend in turn on moral rights, which the religious take from additional founding document such as the Bible or the Koran, but which atheists like me, though each of us perhaps differently, take from a concept of what is essential to human life.

Human life, and language, are built on the assumption that others are like us. Descartes’ idea of the solitary consciousness doesn’t make sense because consciousness requires articulation, and a private language isn’t possible. Language and our knowledge of each other presume on our ability to know what others see and feel, and morality on our vivid understanding of others’ misfortune. We grant rights to each other on that basis, though we don’t all agree on their weight.

The battle between Apple and the FBI is about rights and it’s not a simple one. Tim Cook, I think, is unconcerned with the rights of the San Bernardino gunman (who is, in any case, dead), and I suppose he’d have no issue with assisting the FBI to obtain data from that particular phone. The issue, as I understand it, is that Apple is being asked to provide a ‘general tool’ for the hacking of iPhones anywhere and everywhere,  which, in his view, infringes the rights of millions of ‘innocent’ iPhone users. It’s not about the particular, where a murderer’s rights have been forfeited, but about the general, and the potential infringement of global rights to privacy. In Apple’s judgement this right prevails over the right of the general population to the protection that might ensue from information hacked from the phone.

I support Apple in their resistance to the court’s ruling. And I support their efforts to make it impossible, even for their own engineers, to hack the iPhone. I presume that it would require some rather complex and bludgeoning law to make it a requirement that a device be always hackable. It would certainly give Government too much power.

Rights are these days under serious attack in the nation of the free. Trump wants to turn up the volume when it comes to torture – waterboarding being far too gentle for his taste. (If you want to know more about waterboarding and how awful it really is, read the late Christopher Hitchens on the subject. He tried it.)

Mexicans, apparently, will soon be building their own wall to prevent themselves from scurrying across the border (I love the spiteful twist of ‘making them pay for it’, rather as if you might insist that a murderer pay for his own electric chair). And all Muslims are to be denied entry to the country.

Hardly the land of the free.

The right to privacy ranks high in my list, but there is, I suppose, no way you can establish that it must outrank other rights. It’s a matter of opinion and needs defence, by repeated passionate assertion, rather than philosophical justification, though logic can help with the analysis of how one right might conflict with another. But there are many who rank the right to bear arms, for example, far higher than the general population’s right to safety. What seems obvious to them is anathema to me.

But, from my point of view, three cheers for Tim Cook. I hope he doesn’t end up in jail (and have to pay for the bars).




It’s more than a few years since I graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Psychology, the two subjects I chose from the ghastly PPP trio of Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology (how I wish, now, that I had chosen Economics and PPE instead). Quite why the two subjects I chose were ever put together I’ll never understand. The one was entirely theoretical, the other a hotch-potch of social observation, dubious experiment, linguistic analysis and tedious stories about rats and pigeons.

From the first subject I learnt, gloriously, to know nothing at all, and from the second subject I derived merely boredom, confusion and frustration. As it happens the two faculties were more or less at war with each other (in the particularly vicious way academics go to war), the philosophers claiming, correctly, that the psychologists didn’t know what they were talking about, the psychologists babbling on regardless.


Psychology was at its worst when it strove to be the science of human behaviour. On safer ground, such as the neutral description of animal behaviour, it was merely dull, in the way that taxonomy is dull. Of all the twelve subjects on which I was examined in the summer of 1979 (a hateful two weeks that still gives me nightmares) social psychology was the most ridiculous, and by some cruel irony was the paper for which I got the highest marks.

When it confines itself to gentle observation social psychology is more or less tolerable, though English literature does the same with greater insight and wisdom. But when it attempts ‘theory’ it becomes absurd, not least when it approaches the human mind as if it is a machine. Machines are to humans what sound is to speech. We are both mind and machine, depending on how you look at us, but when we are talking ‘about’ rather than emitting sound, we are inescapably in the human world.

I remember (with some inevitable inaccuracy) a particular theory called ‘affect theory‘ (it’s even dignified with an article on Wikipedia) . One of the ideas of affect theory was that if you went around smiling all day, you would make yourself happier. ‘Happy’ and smile go together. Willing undergraduates (paid?)  reported mild mood swings after a day of parading a rictus grin. You might as well take an umbrella out in the hope of making rain.

I was thinking these thoughts when I read about a new film based on the famous experiments of social psychologist, Stanley Milgram. Milgram began his experiments in the early 1960s during the trial of the infamous Nazi  Adolf Eichmann, partly as an examination of the defence that Eichmann and millions of other Nazis ‘were simply obeying orders.’ Milgram was curious about how far ordinary volunteers (generally male and Yale undergraduates) would go if instructed by an ‘authority figure’ to administer electric shocks of increasing voltage and pain.

His approach was ingenious. A ‘learner’ (in reality an actor) was strapped to an electric shock machine and the naïve subject, the ‘teacher’, was required to teach him word pairs. Every time the learner made a mistake the teacher was instructed by the experimenter to administer a shock. As these grew in voltage with each mistake the learner cried out in pain, even begged the teacher to stop. Some stopped, but the majority went on.

The experiment was repeated all over the world with various minor variations, with both men and women as the unknowing subjects, with the learner sometimes hidden from view, sometimes not, with the experimenter present or instructing by telephone. By and large, the results were the same. The majority of unwitting subjects (the teachers) were obedient, even if the learner appeared to be suffering.

We studied these experiments as part of my psychology course, but fortunately we didn’t repeat them. I remember thinking, with horror and revulsion, how shameful it would be to be found to be obedient.  We often ask ourselves ‘How would I have behaved?’ This experiment is a way of finding out. Indeed the experiment would now be considered unethical because of the extent to which it puts an unwitting subject through the stress of the moral mill.

But apart from imposing an unexpectedly awful experience on the real subject of the experiment, what does it tell us? Can comparisons really be drawn with the obedience of Nazi functionaries? I doubt it. The ‘teacher’ in the lab, where he may subliminally be aware that no real harm is being done, isn’t the Nazi in the concentration camp, where harm and death are obvious and permanent.

And what does it tell us about legal or moral responsibility? Does it bolster or undermine the defence of ‘just obeying orders’? In my view, it is irrelevant to the issue of responsibility.

The experiment, however, was brilliant and disturbing. I won’t see the new film about Milgram – Experimenter – but I hope that it’s honest about the huge deficiencies of social psychology.

To illustrate everything that, to my mind at least, is facile and pointless in social psychology I need only quote a paragraph from the Wikipedia article on one of Milgram’s later experiments (which, without any foundation, I take to be a fair description):

Milgram developed a technique, called the “lost letter” experiment, for measuring how helpful people are to strangers who are not present, and their attitudes toward various groups. Several sealed and stamped letters are planted in public places, addressed to various entities, such as individuals, favorable organizations like medical research institutes, and stigmatized organizations such as “Friends of the Nazi Party”. Milgram found most of the letters addressed to individuals and favorable organizations were mailed, while most of those addressed to stigmatized organizations were not.

No surprise, there, I think.

What connects the philospher Ludwig Wittgenstein to the Sydney Harbour Bridge?

His mother (nominally).

I’m grateful to my colleague and business partner Jiri, who saw my reference to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein last week in a post on Science and the Mind. Ludwig, at various times an engineer, philosopher, clarinettist, soldier, architect, and, during the Second World War, medical orderly, was the son of one of the richest steel magnates of Central and Eastern Europe.

Karl Wittgenstein’s  Vienna-based empire extended even to Kladno, just outside Prague, where, in 1889, he set up a world-famous steel mill, naming it the Poldi Works after his wife, Leopoldine.

It was at this mill that crucial components were manufactured in the late 1920s for the Sydney Harbour Bridge (which I can see from where I am writing this).

Ludwig inherited billions, but gave all of it away to his sister Margaret (who was painted by Klimt) and to his brother Paul (who lost a hand in the First World War and for whom Ravel wrote a piano concerto just for one hand), preferring a solitary, thoughtful, existence in a cottage in Ireland and a hut in Norway. He was famously difficult company.

Never mind, he was the greatest philosopher of them all.

Sydney Harbour Bridge


The Poldi Steelworks in Kladno, near Prague.


Poldi Steelworks logo


Ludwig Wittgenstein