Sacha Golob, writing in The New Statesman, says that “Stupidity is failure’s mental scaffolding: those in its grip worsen problems even as they try to think them through.”
He asks, how might your common or garden fool be differentiated from your naive dupes? Are useful idiots also dumb? Or, might they they be guilty of a sort of intellectual-idiocy? What does IQ have to do with ability? And why, when pointing an accusing finger as your opponent and charging them with stupidity-in-the-first-degree, should we pay attention to the way we simultaneously point three fingers back at ourselves?
I’ve been at King’s for a while now, but in different guises. I did an MA and my PhD in the Department of Philosophy and have more recently been a Visiting Research Fellow. As a VRF, I’ve been running a programme of philosophy courses in London prisons, for which King’s has provided the lion’s share of funding. This year I’ve also been working as an Associate Tutor at Birkbeck. Before all this, I studied an MPhil in history and philosophy of science and a BA in chemical engineering at the University of Cambridge. I also worked as a teaching assistant in engineering and materials science at Queen Mary University of London.
What will you be teaching this year?
I’m officially in two Departments at King’s (Philosophy and Classics), so I’m running courses in both. In Philosophy, I’m teaching Greek Philosophy I – a first-year module that introduces students to ancient Greek philosophy. We’ll be studying a fairly broad range of thinkers: some Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and a number of neo-Pythagorean women philosophers. I’m also co-convening Political and Economic Philosophy, a first-year course primarily for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics students. For this, I’m teaching 5 weeks of contemporary political philosophy. We’ll be getting to grips with several key political ideals, such as justice, liberty, equality, and democracy. In Classics, I’m teaching Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (another introduction to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy), as well as a third-year module on ancient Greek political philosophy. Most of this is devoted to Plato’s Republic and its reception, but we’ll also be considering earlier political thought in the epic poets (Homer and Hesiod), the historians (Herodotus and Thucydides), and Athenian politicians such as Solon and Pericles.
How did you get into philosophy?
Slowly. I was introduced to philosophy at high school by a religious studies teacher who tended to emphasise the philosophical puzzles at the heart of the subject. Lots of our classes consisted of discussion, which really brought things to life for me. But it wasn’t until after studying chemical engineering that I started reading philosophy again, as an MPhil student in history and philosophy of science. Here I did a little philosophy of science and mind, but was really fascinated by ancient Greek science and mathematics. Somewhat circuitously, and encouraged by my supervisor at the time, I started reading more ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle. I really enjoyed the mixture of philosophy, textual interpretation, and history that’s involved in ancient Greek philosophy. I eventually came to the Department of Philosophy at King’s to properly convert to philosophy and was lucky enough to do my PhD here as well. Both my identity as a philosopher and my sense of what it means to do philosophy was really formed at King’s, where I met and was supported by a great community of graduates and staff.
Your doctorate focused on Aristotle’s epistemology. Can you give us the 2 minute elevator pitch summarizing your contribution.
My doctoral research focused on motivating and explaining two ideas. The first is that Aristotle’s epistemology is value-driven, in so far as Aristotle is principally interested in accounting for epistemic states that are ideal. So, for example, when he gives an account of knowledge (epistêmê) in the Posterior Analytics, he is giving an account of an ideal form of knowledge. As such, whether or not Aristotle provides a satisfactory account will depend primarily on whether he describes an epistemic state that is in fact valuable. The second idea is that Aristotle explains such value with recourse to virtue: ideal epistemic states are valuable in part because they are intellectual virtues (an idea prominent in the Nicomachean Ethics). But then we’re left with the further question: why are intellectual virtues valuable? What makes them worth pursuing?
Focusing in particular on the virtue of theoretical wisdom (sophia), I argue that intellectual virtue is valuable because of its transformative nature: in order to have the virtue of theoretical wisdom, it is necessary to understand the goodness of the proper objects of theoretical wisdom (theoretical truths) such that one develops a love for the proper activity of theoretical wisdom (contemplation). This love is in turn required for contemplation to be a constitutive part of the wise person’s flourishing (eudaimonia). Theoretical wisdom thus transforms contemplation and its proper objects into something good for the wise person.
This, it seems to me, is a strange view: Aristotle not only thinks that some theoretical truths are good, but also that they are good for us to know! Nonetheless, I do think it is Aristotle’s view. I also argue that some recent neo-Aristotelian virtue epistemologies end up in a mess when they try to explain epistemic value, because they abandon these peculiar aspects of Aristotle’s account. Indeed, it’s precisely the goodness of certain truths that ultimately grounds the value of theoretical intellectual virtue on Aristotle’s view. So, one of my main take home messages is that, if you want to be an Aristotelian virtue epistemologist, you might have to buy into some of his more peculiar ideas!
How do you balance the intellectual with the practicalities of daily life?
I’m not sure whether I do! My habit is to write to-do list upon to-do list, and set loud reminders on my phone to make sure I don’t forget anything essential. To be honest, though, none of this works particularly well. I tend to do all of the practical things I have to do in a frantic rush, just before I really have no more time to do them!
You won an award for your contribution to the ‘philosophy in prisons’ project. How did you get into that and are you still involved in delivering programmes?
I started work on the prisons project back in 2015. I was on a period of interruption from my PhD, in part because I was feeling pessimistic about the worth of academic philosophy. MM McCabe suggested that I try teaching philosophy in prison (I think she had recently met people working on the excellent Princeton Teaching Initiative). If I remember right, the rough idea was to try to rediscover the worth of philosophy by doing it in what was (for me) a new and radically different context. I was immediately really excited about this and, with MM and Bill Brewer’s support, started contacting prisons. We ended up having a particularly warm reception from staff at HMP Belmarsh, so I extended my interruption to a full year and set about preparing a 10-week pilot course. Since then, the project has really blossomed.
With my two main collaborators – Andy West and Andrea Fassolas – we’ve delivered a host of courses at several London prisons. The last courses were back in 2019, at Belmarsh and Wandsworth. We also delivered one at Downview, our first at a women’s prison, which was funded by Philosophy in Prison – a charity established by King’s philosophers MM McCabe and Bill Brewer, along with their colleague, Tom Harrison. I had been planning three new courses with the charity for summer 2020, all of which had to be indefinitely postponed in the wake of the pandemic. Face-to-face education in prisons halted in March 2020, with prisoners spending the vast majority of time in their cells. Unfortunately, prison regimes are still severely limited and it’s not possible for external educational providers to come into prisons at the moment. In response, I’ve been working with Philosophy in Prison and a number of philosophers on a series of videos in lieu of in person teaching, all of which can be freely accessed and broadcast by prisons. I’m also co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Prison Education and Reentry on philosophy education in the prison context, with Kirstine Szifris (MMU).
Working in prison is extremely rewarding and enriching. In addition to getting to know lots of really interesting people and have engaging philosophical conversations, my experiences have also been philosophically enriching, making me think harder, for example, about the nature and value of epistemic virtues such as open-mindedness. Our students also report a whole variety of benefits, from being empowered with the confidence to re-engage in formal learning and education, to a richer understanding of both themselves and other people, to a sense of community amongst peers that they otherwise lacked in prison. On the other hand, this project has also given me some understanding of the very real, problematic, and damaging aspects of our prisons. In spite of the hard work of many prison managers and staff, our prisons often have people living in incredibly poor conditions, where prisoners are frequently unsafe and have little opportunity to craft and live meaningful lives. This is so much the case that the mere task of teaching in prison, let alone being imprisoned there, can often be upsetting and unsettling.
What is the puzzle that keeps you awake at night?
I’m stuck on a particular puzzle about the value of knowledge. Aristotle draws an apparently strict divide between theoretical and practical knowledge. What’s more, he sometimes claims that theoretical knowledge is useless. One way of thinking about this is that theoretical knowledge has no practical value. This raises an obvious question: what’s the value of theoretical knowledge, if it’s practically useless? Note that we need not buy into Aristotle’s particular characterisation of theoretical knowledge for this puzzle to get off the ground. All we need is the idea that there is some type of knowledge that has value independent of its practical usefulness, e.g. knowledge of astrophysics, which clearly has practical pay-offs but plausibly has value independent of such utility. So, what is that value, exactly? Is it a peculiarly epistemic value, e.g. in so far as grasping truth is of epistemic value? This seems likely right to me, but I don’t think it goes far enough. I don’t think it’s sufficient to explain, for example, the fact that people build whole lives around theoretical pursuits. Alternatively, might we think that theoretical knowledge has some kind of non-practical, prudential value? For example, is attaining this kind of knowledge somehow related to human flourishing? Perhaps, but it’s really unclear how we should spell this out – that’s what I’m puzzling over at the moment!
If not philosophy, then what?
That’s a difficult question. If I’m not doing philosophy, I tend to gravitate as far from cerebral activities as possible. I really enjoy how sport absorbs my focus – running, climbing, cycling, and hiking are favourites. I also took up skateboarding during lockdown, though I’m not sure that will last; I don’t think I’ve got the nerve for it, plus I bruise way easier than I used to! I also enjoy the usual things: music, cooking, video games and the like. If I stopped being a career-philosopher, then I don’t know what I’d do. I have the occasional fantasy of brewing beer – perhaps I could recollect my past life as a chemical engineer!
Prof Maria Rosa Antognazza will be presenting a paper this evening at the Aristotelian Society on The Distinction of Kind between Knowledge and Belief. The presentation, which will be hosted on Zoom, will be available later as a podcast. Both a draft of the paper and a link to the podcast are available here.
The Distinction of Kind between Knowledge and Belief.
Drawing inspiration from a well-attested historical tradition, I propose an account of cognition according to which knowledge is not only conceptually and ontologically prior to belief; it is also, and crucially, not a kind of belief. In turn, believing is not some sort of botched knowing but a mental state fundamentally different from knowing, with its own distinctive and complementary role in our cognitive life. I conclude that the main battle-line in the history of epistemology is drawn between the affirmation of a natural mental state in which there is a contact between ‘mind’ and ‘reality’ (whatever the ontological nature of this ‘reality’), and the rejection of such a natural mental state. For the former position, there is a mental state which is different in kind from belief, and which is constituted by the presence of the object of cognition to the cognitive subject, with no gap between them. For the latter position, all our cognition is belief, and the question becomes how and when belief is permissible.
Epidemiological models have been frequently mentioned in the media lately. What are they? And how do they work? Professor Alexander Bird with the Sowerby/King’s Philosophy & Medicine project has helpfully produced this introduction to epidemiological modelling for the layperson.
The particular model he will be looking at is the SIR model developed by Kermack and McKendrick in 1927.
Here’s a link to the project. Professor Bird has also produced a paper to accompany the video which is available here.
As everyone is locked up, Clayton Littlejohn has been helpfully recording and gather talks on some recent work in philosophy. This talk is an informal presentation of a paper written with Julien Dutant on epistemic rationality and defeat. It presents a new unified theory of defeat according to which the toxicity of rationality defeaters has to do with the way in which they serve as indicators that we cannot know certain things. The paper engages with recent work on epistemic paradoxes, epistemic rationality, and recent work on defeat.
If you are interested, there are more videos available here.
Prof. Maria Alvarez recently appeared on the podcast Aleks Listens, here. Over the course of the interview, she discusses being Head of Department, what it means to be an agent, and the importance of talking with people who have different views.
If you are interested in hearing a thoughtful discussion of some important issues, give it a listen.
The interview begins about 10 minutes from the beginning or 1 hour 8 mins from the end (depending on the direction you are coming from).
The Philosophy and Medicine Colloquium will be meeting on the 17th of March to hear a talk by Dr Robin Durie, University of Exeter. Dr Durie is a member of the Lancet Commission on the Value of Death
17 March 2020 – 17:00-18:30 in the Large Committee Room, Hodgkin Building, Guy’s Campus
If you do not have a KCL ID, please register (free) at this Link.
The Lancet Commission on The Value of Death argues that contemporary society has developed an unhealthy relationship with death due in part to the over-medicalisation of death and dying. Amongst the signs of this unhealthy relationship are the ever increasing amounts of healthcare budgets that are spent on prolonging the lives of those who are dying, with seemingly little or no regard for the quality of the life being prolonged; the investment in the search for immortality amongst the very richest in society, at the same time as the poorest are denied access to even the most basic provision of palliative care; and the gradual shift of the experience of dying from communities and families to hospitals. The core problem of this Lancet Commission is one to which philosophy can make a unique contribution, not least because philosophy has, from its very inception in the work of Plato, understood itself as a “practice for death”. And yet, philosophers such as Spinoza have also argued that “philosophy thinks of death least of all things”. In the first part of this discussion, I will explore this tension in philosophy’s approach towards death; then, I will draw on some more contemporary thinkers, such as Georges Canguilhem, in order to develop a philosophical position from which it may be possible to begin valuing death anew.
I did my PhD and MPhilStud at King’s, so I’ve been here since 2013. However, most recently I came here from Bristol where I was a postdoc on a project with the grand title ‘The Metaphysical Unity of Science’. The great thing about that project is that it allowed me to work on my own research while also giving me the chance to collaborate with the other postdocs (Vanessa Seifert and Toby Friend) on exciting topics. The products of these collaborations should be completed soon!
How did you become interested in philosophy?
I’m lucky enough to have been introduced to philosophy from a very young age by my dad (who also has a PhD in philosophy). Throughout my childhood and later life we’d go on walks on Hampstead Heath discussing philosophy (though not necessarily calling it that) as well as various religious Jewish texts. So, it’s not clear to me that I’ve ever not been into philosophy. The choice to study philosophy professionally was likely motivated in part by the desire to keep up with the conversations when Oliver Black (a schoolfriend of my Dad’s) would join us on these walks! But I really became excited when, as an undergraduate, I started learning about the philosophy of physics!
Your work involves the role of emergence in science, do you think there is a single concept of emergence applicable across different levels of scientific explanation or are we talking about different things?
That’s a good question, and a difficult one to answer. In my more hubristic moments, I think that everyone is talking about the same thing, and that the account of it that I defend with Eleanor Knox, is the one to which everyone should appeal! I do think that many of the uses of the term ‘emergence’ across science have a lot in common with each other, and that, if one wants to use the philosophical jargon, scientists are mainly talking about weak ontological emergence (in its synchronic or diachronic forms). I think that strong emergence is almost exclusively found within philosophy (and that’s one reason to be sceptical of it!). Having said all that, it’s worth noting that I’ve read much more physics than any other science, and so my views should not be taken to result from a systematic study of the literature.
It has been argued in the past that special sciences are autonomous from more fundamental sciences. Do you think that we can ever give an explanation of this autonomy or will it remain a mystery?
The boring answer to this question is that it depends on how ‘autonomy’ is defined. A fair few philosophers assume (explicitly or implicitly) that autonomy is the kind of thing that just can’t be explained – that if a science is autonomous then the relations between it and the lower-level sciences aren’t the sorts of relation which allow for explanation of that autonomy. My view is that, while there’s a sense in which the special sciences are clearly autonomous, that’s a sense which is compatible with explaining how that autonomy comes about.
The basic idea is that autonomy corresponds to a kind of stability: my desk is autonomous because it will look the same even while its constituent particles are continually jiggling about. So part of explaining autonomy is explaining why the jiggling about of the particles just doesn’t make a difference to the macroscopic properties of the table. Once we’ve made this conceptual shift, then we can repurpose a great many scientific explanations to explanations of autonomy: the table’s autonomy is explained by the theories which tell us about how the particles are arranged in a lattice, and how wood is cohesive etc. I’ve written a paper about this that’s currently under review, so hopefully it’ll all be public soon!
Is there a philosophical idea that you endorse and that most people don’t but should?
I think that there may well be no fundamental level – that we may continue describing the world ever more precisely for ever and ever!
The King’s College London Peace Lecture will be given this year by Prof Cécile Fabre on the topic, ‘Snatching Something From Death’: Value, Justice, and Humankind’s Common Heritage
Professor Fabre is a Senior Research Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy. She is the author of Justice in a Changing World, Whose Body is it Anyway?Justice and the Integrity of the Person, and in 2012 Cosmopolitan War.
Cécile Fabre has just completed an eight year long project on the ethics of war and peace. She is also working on the ethics of economic statecraft and on the ethics of espionage.
The lecture will be in Bush House Lecture Theatre 1 on Tuesday the 10th of March
When Notre-Dame Cathedral was engulfed by fire on April 15, 2019, the world (it seemed) watched in horror. On Twitter, Facebook, in newspapers and on TV cables ranging as far afield from Paris as South Africa, China and Chile, people expressed their sorrow at the partial destruction of the church, and retrospective anguish at the thought of what might very well have happened – the complete loss of a jewel of Gothic architecture whose value somehow transcends time and space. My aim in this lecture is to offer a philosophical account and defence of the view that there is such a thing as humankind’s common heritage, and that this heritage makes stringent moral demands on us. I first offer an account of the universal value of (some) heritage goods, and then offer a conception of justice at the bar of which we owe it to one another, but also to our ancestors and successors, to preserve that heritage.