by Ted Welch
Cafe-philo in English, with a French flavour.
The Jan 2nd 2013 meeting of the cafe-philo in English was packed; perhaps people had resolved to be more philosophical in the new year.
On the positive side this cafe-philo does encourage an interest in philosophical issues and provides a platform for the expression of opinion about general ideas by a variety of individuals. However the democratic format does tend to lead to the selection of very general issues which can be expressed in a single short sentence, in this case: "Can education remedy/fight (!) violence?" Well, yes and no; some kinds of education can help reduce some kinds and levels of violence, but also, rather obviously, some forms of education (e.g. technical, how to create an atomic bomb) can lead to enormously increased violence. The proposer himself cited Spartan education for the production of warriors and someone else claimed that many SS officers were PhDs.
A little dialogue is a philosophical thing
Socrates considered his engagement in philosophical dialogue as his life's mission, and this is why Plato chose the dialogue form for his philosophy and kept writing "Socratic dialogues" (Σωκρατικοὶ λόγοι) until late in his career."
Another problem is that there is not a lot of actual discussion. The person who proposed the topic also referred to one of Plato's dialogues: Gorgias. But Plato's classic philosophical works are typified by complex discussion between a few people, in which the complexity of the issues is gradually unfolded by Socrates' specific questions and his interlocutors' attempts to refine their answers. In marked contrast, the cafe-philo tends to be a series of barely related monologues, sometimes expressing the speakers' customary general views loosely related to the topic.
In this case an early response argued for the positive side of violence, saying that it was part of our nature and that it was present even in the creation of art. However, to remedy or fight something is not necessarily to totally eradicate even the potential for it. Nor do I think that to put paint on canvas is necessarily violent. Even carving such a monument to triumphant violence as Michelangelo's David is not in itself a result of violence, but rather of creative transformation of inert matter. Later another person supported a more positive view of violence; maybe it was just a coincidence that they were both American - and rather unfortunate that the recent killings in a school in the US by a well-educated young man were given only a passing mention.
However, rather than discuss the specific points raised, we moved on to other people's views and there was only one reference back much later on; the proposer of the topic disagreeing about art involving violence.
Someone argued that we must include a spiritual dimension in education - presumably not the spirit of ruthless courage displayed by the Spartans, but a nice, New-Age kind of non-violent spirituality.
Another contrast with pacifist spirituality is that of "the spirit of the samurai", as exemplified in "Chushingura" (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers), the true story of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) who killed the man they held responsible for their lord's death, who had been ordered to commit suicide ("seppuku") for an attack on a senior official. For this, they in turn were ordered to commit suicide :
"For three centuries since, the popularity of Chushingura has never waned."
In fact there was a new film version in 2012, with Keanu Reeves - in 3D !:
Right after the incident, Tsuchiya, Kira's neighbor, testified to shogunate officials that he had been impressed by the ronin, whom he described as orderly and perfectly organized.
English with a French flavour
While the cafe-philo is in English, I was struck (excuse the violent metaphor) by how the French context was reflected in some general tendencies.
The definition delusion deconstructed
There is a preoccupation with definitions in French culture; I've noticed that in TV discussions, French people will often raise a question about the topic, then offer a definition, e.g.: "Democracy, what is democracy?" and then they proceed to give some sort of definition, as if THEY are getting to the root of the problem, which has eluded the other, definition-free, interlocutors. This might be valuable in law, but in British law some things are left open to interpretation given the circumstances. Thus, in defending oneself, one can use "reasonable force" - but what would count as "reasonable" is left open to the judge and jury to decide. Wittgenstein argued that the preoccupation with definitions is misleading in philosophy:
Finally, Wittgenstein's choice of `game' is based on the over-all analogy between language and game, assuming that we have a clearer perception of what games are. Still, just as we cannot give a final, essential definition of `game', so we cannot find "what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language" (PI 65).
We can all use the words "education" and "violence" as speakers of English, without being able or needing to give precise definitions to these rather general and complex concepts. When some people did offer definitions they were rather obviously inadequate; thus someone suggested that we define "violence" as a lack of recognition of other people. While that might be one cause of some violence, it clearly won't do as a general definition of "violence".
Misguided respect for Freud in France
Something else rather typical of a French context, is the frequent reference to Freud as an respected authority, this is despite the many well-documented critiques of Freud and recently one by Michel Onfray, a French philosopher: "Twilight of an Idol.". As I said in the meeting, the latter has sold very well in France, but obviously still needs to be known more widely for it clearly reveals that Freud was a liar more concerned with inflating his own reputation than in searching for the truth. When the truth was likely to damage his reputation he destroyed the evidence, for example the letters of his friend Fliess to Freud. He also tried to obtain to destroy his own letters to Fliess, but they survived and provide some damning evidence against Freud.
Predictably there was a furious reaction from the powerful pro-Freud group in France and their media friends, cf:
Members of the still powerful corporation guild of psychoanalysts in France have come out in full force to launch concerted attacks against Michel Onfray. Some members of this corporation have accused this brilliant subversive philosopher to be in cahoots with "neoliberalism" or "savage capitalism" of the era globalization. A preposterous accusation (Onfray is very left-wing).
See my discussion:
Pinker's pro-US propaganda
There was also reference to Steven Pinker's recent book: "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". The person who'd proposed the topic welcomed this reference to a work containing some statistical evidence. However Pinker's book is a thinly disguised defense of the US's post-war imperialism (a word which, significantly, doesn't occur in the book's index). There is an excellent and devastating critical review by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson:
It is amusing to see how eagerly the establishment media have welcomed Steven Pinker's 2011 tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which explains not only that "violence has been in decline for long stretches of time," but that "we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species' existence."
Unfortunately this very well-researched review has probably been seen by far fewer people than the positive reviews in mainstream media such as the New York Times. Like Freud (at least in France), Pinker is widely respected, despite the fact that in both cases they are demonstrably wrong in very important respects. This reminds me of a motto for journalists:
"Even if your mother says she loves you - check it out."
Or, as Nietzsche said:
Conviction is an objection, a question mark, a défi ["challenge"] (--very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions--? Rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions! ! !"
While I did more or less remember this, I did check it out - (it is the last but one quotation here):
Sartre (who used to frequent Cafe Flore) radically revised his early existentialist conviction about freedom, concluding that he had in fact been expressing bourgeois ideology. In his later work he attempted to develop a more marxist approach. While Marx had noted the importance of human agency, he understood its limitations: "Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own making." A waiter's career choice might have been very limited.
Unfortunately the cafe-philo format does tend to favour the expression of people's convictions and not enough dialogue challenging such convictions. But it is up to us, if we're really philosophically inclined, to continue the dialogue after the event, as a few of us did in a nearby restaurant, and as I am doing in contributing this and as anybody reading this is invited to do by commenting.