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Sunday, 19 July 2020

Radical Philosophy

I had a partner who teased me whenever I informed her that I’d worked something out in my own head. She had a sharp ear for pleonasm and so I made attempts to avoid being teased.

Recently, I discovered that the journal Radical Philosophy has been revived. The old one started in 1972 and ran to two hundred issues before running out of steam. This morning in the shower - and nearly fifty years after contributing to the first issue of the original Radical Philosophy [1] -  I had the thought (in my own head), Isn’t the expression radical philosophy a pleonasm?

All philosophy tries to get to the root/s of things, to get beyond the repetition of conventional thoughts, the reliance on unchallenged assumptions, the polite acquiescence in received wisdom. That does not entail that philosophical conclusions must end up being sceptical in character. You may dig down to the roots and discover they are very strong and hold up the tree very well. Your task then becomes that of re-familiarising others, of getting them to look afresh at what has become so familiar that it is too much taken for granted. Take a look, give that root a big kick, and you will find it hurts you more than it hurts the root.

But to confine philosophy to just sceptical and non-sceptical versions is too limiting, anyway. Raymond Geuss titles a recent book Changing The Subject (2017) and broadly speaking argues that philosophers repeatedly change the state of the question. Marx was very explicit about the change he wanted to make: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. [2]

It’s a commonplace in the philosophy of science at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work (1950s – 1960s)[3] that when a scientific revolution occurs, it’s not just a theory which changes. It is the questions asked, the bits of the world which seem in need of study, the definition of the subject itself. Geuss is casting the history of philosophy as possessed by a similar dynamic. 

But for both science and philosophy, it does not exclude the claim that they aim at truth.

There is art and literature which might be described as philosophical and which also tries to dig down to the roots, either to refresh our understanding of our world or suggest we might be better off shifting ourselves into a different one. William Wordsworth seeks to refresh, to re-imagine our familiar world, to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday as Coleridge puts it in Biographia Literaria

In contrast, there are those who use literary and theatrical techniques of estrangement or alienation to upset our habitual responses, hoping to lead us into questioning the normal, into imagining a world different from this wearying reality of ours. In the recent past the names of Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht [4] are closely linked to such an approach, but the techniques are not new. They are deployed in a long procession of older works in which the morals and manners of other cultures are held up as mirrors to our own: Montaigne's sixteenth century essay "On the Cannibals" is an early example.

Of course, art and literature and philosophy too are often enough produced as comfort food, offering no challenge and packaged like candy. On that, my philosopher’s advice is to refuse substitutes and only curl up on the sofa with real ideas and fairtrade chocolate. [5]

[1] “Sanity, Madness and the Problem of Knowledge”, Radical Philosophy, 1, January 1972, pp. 22-23. Now at 
[2] . The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, dating from 1845.
[3]  Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).
[4] “English Formalism and Russian Formalism”, in my Materials and Medium: An Aesthetics (2016), pp. 71-80.
[5] Here Dr Pateman enters into competition with Dr Peterson who in 12 Rules for Life (2018) recommends a masculine diet of Heidegger and fry-up breakfasts. Cousin Medicine publicly despairs of us both but kindly whispers, Peterson’s diet is much worse.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Mayor of London's Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm

Submission to the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm

(Chairs: Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard and Justine Simons OBE)

“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (Audre Lorde)

This submission is made by way of asking the Commission to consider the argument that the erection of any new statues or monuments to individuals should be discouraged and planning permission refused. At the same time, many existing statues should be removed.

The traditional style of these monuments to individuals  - recently exemplified by the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square - produces a stone or metal effigy or mummy of a dead person, posed upright, and supported by a plinth. A horse has often been deployed to add further height.

This traditional mode has been used for centuries by elites in an attempt to immortalise themselves. 

Though the form probably goes back to the Pharaohs, if not beyond, this kind of grisly monumentalisation has never been a popular art form and is unlikely to become so even if those immortalised are changed.

In addition, and as with Heaven and Hell, a binary choice has to be imposed on history. Either an individual gets a statue or they don’t. This not only produces endless and inconclusive debates about whether someone merits a statue but also obstinately ignores the fact that human beings always have demerits as well as merits; they may be heroes but they are never saints.

Inevitably, the monumental statue system favours leaders over followers and gives no recognition to the part played by groups and movements. When the two are juxtaposed, the effect is sometimes unfortunate: for example, the juxtaposition of the Cenotaph in Whitehall and Earl Haig is indefensible. Haig should not be there.

For public graveyards, there are protocols for clearing them out and starting again. No protocols exist for removing unwanted statues and it will be no easy task for your Commission to formulate any.

I would urge the Commission to consider the many limitations of trying to use public space to create public memory and to have regard in their recommendations to the fact that the world changes faster than bronze or marble wears out.

Submitted 9 June 2020; acknowledged 13 July 2020.