Dignity’s due

Why are philosophers invoking the notion of human dignity to revitalize theories of political ethics? Samuel Moyn’s review of two new books about human dignity outlines a history of the concept of human dignity, including Kant’s role in redefining the idea. “One philosopher, however, the German Enlightenment sage Immanuel Kant, thought about human distinction precisely in terms of dignity—namely, the priceless worth conferred on us by our freedom to choose. … Kant insisted that man’s ‘rational nature’—our ability to set ends—makes every human life of highest value, and indeed provides the basis of all value in the world.”

The review goes out to show the tension between the deontological idea of respect for human dignity and the utilitarian value of humans caring about the welfare of others : “Today, human dignity is a principle chiefly for those who admire judges and want them to have the power to check the state in the name of basic humanitarian values. Its currency is a sign that our morality has been redefined around the worst that can transpire in history rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle. A consensus about dignity may have become deep enough for us to insist that the state not torture, but it has proved far less helpful when some of us insist that our fellow humans care about one another’s broader welfare or collective emancipation. Isn’t that undignified?”

F. P. Ramsey: greatest philosopher of the 20th century?

Restoring F. P. Ramsey.  “F. P. Ramsey has some claim to be the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. In Cambridge in the 1920s, he singlehandedly forged a range of ideas that have since come to define the philosophical landscape. Contemporary debates about truth, meaning, knowledge, logic and the structure of scientific theories all take off from positions first defined by Ramsey. Equally importantly, he figured out the principles governing subjective probability, and so opened the way to decision theory, game theory and much work in the foundations of economics. His fertile mind could not help bubbling over into other subjects. An incidental theorem he proved in a logic paper initiated the branch of mathematics known as Ramsey theory, while two articles in the Economic Journal pioneered the mathematical analysis of taxation and saving.” All this before he died at the age of 26. Learn more about Ramsey’s theory of truth in this Philosophy Bites podcast.

Has a Manhattan jeweler explained everything?

David Birnbaum and his Summa Metaphysica.  “David Birnbaum made his fortune selling jewellery to movie stars. Now he has published a ‘remarkable and profound’ investigation into the origins of the universe. Is there any reason to take it seriously? … Is it still conceivable – as it was a century ago – that a gentleman amateur, with some financial resources, could make a real, revolutionary contribution to our understanding of the mysteries of the universe? There is no shortage of people who would say no, at least in Birnbaum’s case.”

Spinoza and Leibniz

Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic is about Leibniz (the courtier) and Spinoza (the heretic). It is a superb introduction to their ideas and also an exciting story. As Liesl Schillinger put it in Great Minds Don’t Think Alike, a book review in the New York Times, “With ‘The Courtier and the Heretic,’ Stewart has achieved a near impossibility, creating a page-turner about jousting metaphysical ideas that casts the hallowed, hoary thinkers as warriors in a heated ideological battle.” This book review, along with Mad, bad and dangerous to know – it can only be a philosopher and Of miracles and monads, will give you a good idea of Stewart’s book and of Spinoza’s and Leibniz’s ideas.

Consciousness: the hard problem

Can we get our heads around consciousness? Very good review of and reflection on theories about how consciousness happens in the first place and how it in turn affects matter. “Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today. … The hard problem’s fascination is that it has, to date, completely and utterly defeated science. Nothing else is like it. We know how genes work, we have (probably) found the Higgs Boson; but we understand the weather on Jupiter better than we understand what is going on in our own heads. This is remarkable.”

Philosophy in prison

Philosophy for Life (and other sentences).  Some interesting thoughts about teaching philosophy to prisoners … how to do so and whether it is after all something worth doing. “I got onto the idea of focusing on what you can control rather than what you can’t. I told the story of Rhonda Cornum, how she had used Stoic techniques to cope with being a prisoner-of-war. ‘When you’re a prisoner, your guards control everything about your life, everything external anyway, except your thoughts and beliefs.’ That got their attention. Stoicism, after all, is very much a philosophy of finding inner freedom in external imprisonment – that’s why it’s inspired various inmates, from James Stockdale to Nelson Mandela.”