The Best Facecream in the world

On a beautiful summer evening I, aged 50 years stepped onto the campus for the first time. I was still getting over the fact that after attending, what I considered to be a disastrous college interview (on my part) I was actually offered a place at Birkbeck University to study philosophy. The desire to go and study at degree level was about to become a reality. Eek!

As I walked through the gates on the way to the main building, I was surrounded by seemingly self-confident people hanging out in beer tents, sitting or lying in groups on the grass and looking very much at home with university life. I wasn’t. I studied them with wanton curiosity as if they were some alien beings. It was as if I had daydreamed myself off course and found myself in a no go zone. I did not belong here. These beings were confident, knowledgeable, bright, popular and young. I was none of these things.

University life meant nothing to me; my youth was a distant land. My career was becoming non-existent and yet I was curious or crazy enough to keep walking and not run away. Putting one foot in front of the other I made it to the door. Yet when I got there something stopped me from going in. Curiosity raised its head again. I just had to have another look. A closer look at what could well become my fellow students or tutors. Best face the music I thought. Indeed music was playing in the distance. It was good too. The smell of food and the summer air reminded me of a festival and I was a dab hand at festivals. Despite my aging bones, I could camp down, rock and join the mosh pit as well as anyone. I saw some friendly looking faces so I smiled at them. They smiled back. Result!

This time, head high I looked around me rather than casting a shy, hunched glances. I noticed the sundial in the garden. I walked over to it. Its aged-green copper globe-lines reminded me of the one at Walmer Castle, Kent. The memory of a lovely summer holiday in Kent drifted in, when my husband took a photo of me standing looking through the bars of the globe. I felt a pang of sadness and joy. Sadness because it was the last summer my Mum was alive. Joy because I am loved so much by the photographer who gave me his full support in my mid-life choice to study. This, I decided was going to be my touchstone. The mark of energy and light that would signify the start of my journey and keep me focused. The sundial and I became the image I chose to be on my student pass and My Birkbeck Profile. Recently in a bookshop while showing my student card for a discount, one of the staff admired the image saying how happy I looked. He was right, I was happy.

Although scared, doubtful of my abilities and uncertain as to whether I was doing the right thing or not. However, I was smiling. For some crazy, mad reason that only the very young and the aging can identify with, I felt a smile in my head and a sudden lightness in my hormones. I jaunted over to the main door and went inside.

An hour later, nicely surrounded by similar eager, curious people that appeared to be of all ages and come from everywhere, I began to understand the true meaning of University. I got what Plato and Aristotle were trying to do all those years ago. It gave me joy thinking about shared knowledge and experiences and exciting to think of the discussions yet to be had. When the speaker on the stage asked us whether we would like to share how we felt about being here, my hand shot up. She nodded encouragingly at me and I heard myself say to the universe “It is the best facecream in the world, both inside and out”.

People clapped, they actually clapped. Judging by the response given, I guess a lot of people would agree that studying philosophy is a universal and intuitive thing in that it knows no age, ability or social barriers to studying it. The greatest learning has not only been from the excellent reading lists but the discussions and live conversations I had and continue to have with such a diverse demographic. I thank everyone as your knowledge and kindness like a good moisturiser has rubbed off on me and I feel a brighter and happier person from it.

So for anyone considering studying Philosophy, whatever your age or background I would encourage you to go on, dip your fingers into the creamy pot of knowledge, apply gently and absorb.

– Charlotte Daly, Philosophy Student at Birkbeck College

Advice to Derrida from Kotsko

Link to post here:

Full piece to save clix:

Perhaps [weasel-word!] something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event,” if this loaded word [loaded according to whom?] did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function [is this really its only function?] of structural–or structuralist–thought [which is it?] to reduce or to suspect [again, which?]. But let me use the word “event” anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling [why? Unpack this].

It would be easy enough to show [then show it! This is a big generalization that you never support!] that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the episteme [is this a reference to Foucault? In that case, cite]–that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy [this is a big claim, citation?]–and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the episteme plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement [unclear — I think I see what you’re getting at, but it could be expanded and unpacked a bit more]. Nevertheless, up until the event which I wish to mark out and define [maybe you should lead off with what this event is supposed to be, rather than making the reader wait? I’m already losing the thread], structure–or rather the structurality of structure–although it has always [careful with these generalizations] been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence [this feels jargony to me], a fixed origin. The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure–one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure–but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the freeplay of the structure [what does this mean? Unpack]. No doubt [this does not seem as immediately obvious to me] that by orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form. And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself [this seems a bit overblown — maybe nuance?].

Also Jon Cogburn’s perspective:


What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?

Given that I have only been in philosophy for around 22 months, ‘in’ in the infatuated, over-ambitious, starry-eyed MA student sense of the word; and the romantic and nauseatingly idealist 23 year-old girl-woman sense of that other word, I don’t feel particularly qualified to answer this, however I would like to try.

This is an interesting question, which forces me not only ask myself what it is like to be a woman in philosophy, but to also go on to ask ‘what is it like to be a blackwoman in philosophy?’

It’s probably no surprise that what constitutes most of the reading for my syllabus is written by dead white men. What brought me into philosophy in the first place is my adoration of Friedrich Nietzsche, John Locke, Ludwig Wittgenstein, to name a few. I can’t say that when I started out on my journey to become philosophically enlightened (I think that’s what this is, anyway) it occurred to me how small the sample size of ‘great minds’ I admired was. I have a habit of doing this in many aspects of life. Actually, much of this year has been awakening for me in terms of what it is actually like to be black and female in this world, amongst many other things which make me someone who is not a member of several dominant cultures I this part of the world.

I’m at a time in my life where I’m learning to live with myself. To recognise those things which characterise me; those things that make me Kayla, and to be comfortable with them. I’m also becoming increasingly sensitive to the place of women in current societies around the world, and conscious of the part I can play, and encourage others to play in elevating women. So, when I think about my place in all of this, I do at times wonder, given my gender and ethnic background, how far can I really go in this field of philosophy, and how widely read would I be? If I started lecturing at public events, would my gender or colour feature in people’s perceptions of me or my materials? I try not to worry about this too much for now.

I’m lucky (or naive) enough to be able to say that at this point in time, neither my gender nor ethnicity has caused my fellow students or lecturers to treat me any differently from the way I perceive them to treat the white male population on my course. I look around the average lecture theatre or seminar and see a few other coloured faces, and a few more women, and that makes me pleased.

I know that my experiences at my institution are not representative of others. The one I attend is a specialist night college, whose demographic is busy professionals who have often chosen to take up study later in , so that could have something to do with it. I know of people who have spoken as their experience being markedly different in other institutions, and others who say the same, but recognize that things may be slowly changing.

I’ve never attended a public lecture given by a women, much less a black woman, so in terms of being able to identify with the people who are in the positions that I aspire to be in, it’s hard. But I’m not sure that this worry is yet at the front of my mind.

So to answer your question, it’s not really like anything. It’s like studying the subject that has become the love of my life, being surrounded by many different souls who have enriched and continued to enrich my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and at makes me so thirsty for life my eyes often fill with tears. On my course, I have met some of the strongest, most amazing women I know. Occasionally this experience is peppered with a niggling anxiety, but only occasionally. It’s great, and I hope it continues to get better for all women. I hope that we can attract even more women to the discipline.


*post by Michaela Reid-Thomas*

Logic and Philosophy

Martin thinks logic doesn’t seem to help philosophy much. I am a great friend of logic, and think it both a) worthy of philosophical investigation in its own right and b) a very useful tool in the furthering of other philosophical goals. Nevertheless, I am aware it has limits. I’ll try and say something about all of these things, to convince you logic iz cool.


Logic is the study of what follows from what. Intuitively, we know what that means: for instance, John is happy follows from John is happy and John is tall, but not from John is happy or John is tall. For a remarkably large category of similar cases, people appear to agree on the nature of this “follows from” relation. But:

a) what is the “follows from” relation? The natural view that it boils down to linguistic convention, championed by Carnap & Wittgenstein, has been thoroughly demolished by Quine in the paper “truth by convention”. (In a nutshell, conventions are rules, and applying rules consistently requires logic. Thus we could not have adopted the rules of logic by convention; for we should have been without a guide for putting the conventions in place.) What then is it? And how do we all agree on such a large body of cases?

b) There are cases where “most” “ordinary” people “get it wrong”. Logicians, beginning in the mid 19th century with Boole, abstracted something like the familiar truth tables from reflecting on logical rules. These fit the vast majority of cases, and have proved very useful – the development of Boolean algebras and modern logic was instrumental in the computing revolution – but there are many logical truths and patterns of inference they to validate, such as (A -> B) v (B -> A), and from (A -> B) and ¬B infer ¬A, and from A -> B and B you may not infer A, which many “ordinary” people appear to get “wrong”. What is the status of such inferences?

c) there are also many interesting questions on the border of logic & mathematics, espeically in what’s known as “meta-logic”, that I won’t go in to here, but may in a future post.

Very well, you might say. Logic does offer a new quagmire for philosophers to get stuck in. But if logic itself has philosophical problems to be addressed, how can we hope for it to help us in other areas of philosophy?

We cannot hope that translating philosophical debates into logical languages will solve them. But *sometimes* it will serve to clarify what’s at stake. Descartes once argued:

1) I know I have a mind

2) I do not know that I have a body


c) the mind is distinct from the body.

Part of the practice of logic is “schematising” arguments, abstracting from the particular content to see of a particular argument form is valid. This project can help us to assess philosophical arguments. Martin might be happy to see that Descartes’ argument for dualism is in fact invalid, as logical schematization reveals. The argument has the form:

1) I know that Fa

2) I do not know that Fb

c) ¬(a = b)

This argument is not valid: consider

1) I know Clark Kent

2) I do not know superman

c) Clark Kent is not superman

The premises of that argument can be true while the conclusion false; thus the form is not valid. This is not to say, of course, Descartes’ conclusion was wrong, only that we don’t have to worry about his particular argument for it.

Let me finish with a cautionary note on the limits of such gee-whizzery. The above example requires that we know how to “parse” Descartes’ argument correctly. For instance, we might also translate “I know that I have…” as *one* predicate, call it G. Then the formalization of Descartes’ reasoning would be:

1) Ga

2) ¬Gb

c) ¬(a = b)

which is straightforwardly *valid* by Leibniz’s law (two things are identical only if they have all the same properties, of which G is one). As is well known, there is no “algorithm” for parsing statements of ordinary language in the “correct” way, so just having tools of logic is not going to be enough to assess such arguments. Nevertheless, there is a clear and intuitive sense in which the latter parsing misses something out. If we employ logic in tandem with our intuitions, it is a useful – I would almost say necessary(1) – tool for telling good from bad arguments. To my mind, Descartes’ mistake *just was* to implicitly parse “I know that I have a…” as one predicate. Had we been there to schematize his argument, he might not have made the mistake.

However, as a further cautionary note, even if we do parse the argument “correctly” so that we include the operator “know”, we still have to know how that operator behaves. Those familiar with modal logic can observe the validity of the following argument ([]Fa reads “it is necessary that a is F”):

1) []Fa

2) ¬[]Fb

¬(a = b)

(since 2 implies there is a world at which b is not F, while 1 rules this out for a. I may be wrong about this though, as my first-order modal logic is not super refined). Thus we need to have an *antecedent* understanding of, e.g., the difference between knowledge and necessity as modal operators in order to carry out the formalization correctly in the first place. The task of working out plausible intuitions about the behaviour of operators like “S knows that p” or “it is necessary that p” or “S ought to p” is a central task of philosophical logic – it is extremely tricky, requiring good philosophy & good technical skill. At any rate, while I think logical formalizations can help to clarify lines of argument and objections to them, they will never be anything more in philosophy than a helpful device of clarification, at the end of the day, we shall always rely on our intuitive understanding of everyday concepts. We won’t be able to solve philosophical problems on computers by formalizing them or anything like that – at least not for the forseeable future!


(1) Arguments of continetnal philosophers are sometimes flat out contradictory or circular. I have particular arguments of Deleuze and Heidegger in mind. I’m not sure if logic can properly be used to assess such arguments, hence wavering on necessity. Maybe a future post.


Why I love philosophy*

Philosophy has come under attack a bit on this blog. Martin is worried about the unnecessary termino-logical contortions philosophers seem to love putting themselves through in making simple points, and Frank Weyns has argued that philosophy constitutes a wild-goose chase for absolute truth. (THIS MAY BE A LITTLE UNFAIR. FRANK WEYNS’ POSITION ON THIS WAS MORE NUANCED THAN I GOT ON FIRST READING…PERHAPS CLOSER TO THE ONE I OUTLINE HERE THAN I NOTICED. (edit)) He has also claimed, in a response to a post of Katy’s, that feminist philosophy is impossible.


In this post I shan’t argue against either of these claims about the nature of philosophy (directly). Rather I’ll put forward a different view, my own, which is contrary to those mentioned above. The reader can decide for themselves.

Is philosophy the search for absolute truth? Maybe. Is there any such thing? Maybe. Either answer to the latter question (yes or no) is to my mind hubristic – rather as any definite answer to the question of whether or not there is a God. The only respectable position on such matters is either agnosticism or a self-professed confession of faith.

While I think philosophy might be a search for absolute truth, and that that search may or may not be futile, it is not the reason I love philosophy.* Nor is it the reason I think philosophy should (and I think it should!) be pursued.

I think of philosophy as a discipline whose principal aim is the challenging of any and all preconceptions simply in order to open up new avenues of thought and enquiry. Forget about absolute truth: Descartes argued that there were two completely inseparable realms, the mental and the physical, of which the mental is in some sense prior; Kant that the mind has an essential role in the constitution of the physical world; Berkely that there may be no physical world whatever. These assertions may (for all we know) be true or false – scientists have yet to disprove esse ist percipi. What is interesting (for me) is not whether they are really true or false, but the ideas themselves – seeing how these ideas fit into a world view, how attractive or inattractive that world view might be, how they challenge basic preconceptions that people (now and/or then) have taken to be obvious. Such enquiry first reveals limits to what we can know about the world, and then fills in the gaps exposed by those limits with arguments that should, I think, be judged not by whether or not they take us closer to absolute truth (whatever that may or may not be), but rather by a) their deductive rigor (they must, pace Martin, be at least logically consistent)and b) aesthetic constraints like elegance, simplicity, conformity to common sense, and so on.

This sort of radical challenging of basic preconceptions** is in fact common to the very best human achievements in science, philosophy, art, music, literature, and mathematics (to name a few). Whether or not we call certain people working these fields “philosophers” comes down to a terminological quibble; and of course not all mathematicians, scientists or what have you are philosophers even in this sense. But some (by my definition here) certainly are. I think there is a plain difference between those mathematicians who, for instance, use antecendently established algorithms to code up secrets and those mathematicians who behave more like philosophers, who challenge basic mathematical preconceptions (does -1 have a root? Are there infinite numbers?). Like stories could be told for other disciplines (think of the humdrum scientist working on hair-care products as opposed the theoretical physicist who suggests there may be things neither wave nor particle), and in each case folks of the latter “philosophical” kind tend to be the truly great ones (e.g Kurt Goedel in maths, Wittgenstein in philosophy, Albert Einstein/Werner Heisenberg*** in physics, James Joyce in literature, Arnold Schoenberg in music, Malevich in art to name some contemporaries).

To my mind this view of philosophy makes it plain that feminist philosophy is possible and distinct from political feminism. Political feminism is concerned with actively furthering progress in terms of women’s rights and so forth; but a feminist philosophy involves challenging preconceptions people might have in various areas of thought – either in terms of ideas about the feminine, or ideas that do not include the feminine explicitly but perhaps should do. As an example of this sort of preconception, Frank Weyns wrote in a comment in support of his views about the impossibility of philosophical feminism:

Philosophy admirably concerns itself with human nature in general, i.e. it tries (or should try) to understand what is common across that broad spectrum we call the human race, i.e. it should continue to try hard to abstract from human specifics that relate to how individual political segments of society aspire to politically differentiate themselves from the human race in general..

Why this preconception of human nature as ungendered? One might think that part of what it is to be human is to be gendered, and thus that an exploration of human nature will involve understanding the essence of each gender and their relations; or one might think that the homogenized ungendered view of human nature is correct, but that (since most “great thinkers” of history have been white european males) the current ungendered view is in fact unnecessarily biased towards men. I think these avenues of overtly feminist philosophy can and should be explored****; for philosophy just is (on this view) precisely the exploration of such avenues, for no reason other than that they are there. Doing so is (to my mind) of great intrinsic value, and the reason I ❤ philosophy.*

*For etymologists: note the meta-love here 🙂

** of course the same constraints do not apply; but certainly great musicians, artists and so on challenge ones preconceptions in those areas.


**** checkout SEP on feminist philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology & so on.

Not yet converted – An Unbalanced View

Where might you be at the end of your part-time Philosophy MA conversion course? What will you have discovered?

René Descartes

While I wait for the results of my exam to see if I will be allowed to take my full vows for the real thing, I thought it might be interesting to see what I think about it all.

What strikes early on is the shear intricate detail of the arguments made in pursuit of a case and a sort of cloud that hides a presumably obvious message as to what is being said. Even articles of supposedly model explication confound me. Kant, while difficult at the best of times, infuriates by throwing in a second proposition before you realised there was a first one *, and ‘formers’ and ‘latters’ send me scurrying back to work out if the point I am looking at is ‘for’ or ‘against’.

No wonder logic is an attraction with its supposedly clear air of precision. But I have to date found it surprisingly irrelevant and more a case of converting arguments into fine-sounding modus ponens for the sake of appearance – at least as far as I can tell.

I realise that I am signing my own death-warrant with these confessions. But while we are at it let’s get to some meat. It is obviously all Descartes’ fault. He started it off – or rather set it off again after many centuries of innocent ponderings. We must sit by a fire and split reality into a subjective ‘I’ and an objective ‘real’ world. We must then spend the next three centuries or so trying to argue against our initial assumption without changing it – the very assumption that we have made in the first place.

No wonder the arguments are intricate; nearly, but not quite reaching their target. Knowledge, scepticism, free-will, the mind-body problem, time, the reality of morality et al, confound and confuse in knicker-twisted knots of ‘formers’ and ‘latters’ and compatibilist compromises.

But if only we had listened to Descartes we might have noticed that only God is allowed to change goals without changing them – if you see what I mean. In our analytic world the goal we have set is firmly bricked across. It is impenetrable to mere mortals.

So why do we persist? And why do we not listen to alternatives as hinted loudly by Thomas Nagel+, and why do we not notice the full blown torpedo in Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’? Why do we not actually look at the hands of G.E. Moore’s before they get entangled in a fancy modus tollens?

I obviously have a lot to learn. But despite my apparent cynicism I still hope I am given the chance to achieve conversion. My interim conclusion is that philosophy is oddly compelling. The question (to the latter point) is “Why?”

Martin Earl

* See page P13 of Kant, I. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Gregor, M. (transl./ed) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). We are informed of the second proposition and then take a devil of time working out where the first one is within the previous six pages. (This is obviously Kant’s fault, not mine!)

+For example, “It is the aim of eventual unification [of the subjective and objective] that I think is misplaced.” Nagel, T. ‘Subjective and Objective’, in Mortal Questions, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979) p 213