The politics of monarchy

Ruth asked:

Your thoughts on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Royalty is a fiction. History records that Oliver Cromwell put an end to the belief — regarded once as an immutable axiom — in the ‘divine right of kings’. Today, in the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, there has been much talk of what it means to be a ‘constitutional monarch’. Yesterday, erstwhile Prince Charles, now His Majesty King Charles III, was quick to reassure those worried about his previous ‘meddling’ that he would respect the limits imposed on his constitutional role as King.

This is an understandable error.

On the contrary, Charles is not bound to follow his mother’s script. Queen Elizabeth II was the product of a different age. His Majesty is his own man. With the country deeply divided on party lines, and open hostility between the lucky privileged and those struggling to make a living, words and wishful sentiments are not enough to bring the country back to a sense of unity. As King, Charles has authority that he lacked when he was a mere Prince. He has the means and the power to influence events, to bring about change.

This is his right — albeit not a ‘divine’ right — and not a mere privilege granted to him by whichever party happens to have been elected to power.

The King may not have the power to make laws or administer justice, but by the very fact that he is monarch, his words carry a unique weight. In a strong democracy, the respect granted to the fiction of monarchy poses no danger that the country might lapse into tyranny, or that somehow the wishes of the electorate will be undermined.

John Stuart Mill remarked that democracy is the ‘tyranny of the majority’. However, it is mere fantasy to imagine that power resides only in the elected representatives in Parliament. On the contrary, anyone who speaks out and knows that they will be listened to — whether they be leaders of large trades unions, or groups of industrialists, or even popular celebrities — has the ability to influence the course of events, in a positive or negative way. They have a special role to play in the national conversation. In this respect, the role of the monarch is unique and irreplaceable.

Decades ago, Charles was one of the first to speak out about the dangers to the climate and the environment. He has persevered despite jibes and disrespect from the popular press exerting their power and influence. Now that he has succeeded to the throne, the deep regard that the British people hold to the institution of monarchy, shown by the reactions to the death of his mother, ensures that these criticisms will be severely muted, if not silenced. He has a right and a duty to speak his mind.

There is a puzzle here, of how a mere accident of birth can grant one this right. The monarch’s power is a fiction. We can block our ears, if we choose. But we do not, because we happily subscribe to that fiction. I mentioned in a previous answer that religion is a fiction. That does not mean that people who engage in religious practices are somehow deluded. To be religious, or to respect the authority of the monarch is a way of life that we find meaningful and worth believing in, even though we lack ‘belief’ in the strict and literal sense.

If political theory finds this difficult to reconcile, so much the worse for political theory. Traditionally, the problem of political theory has been posed in the form, ‘Why should I obey the law?’ Answers have been along the lines of justifying the sense of obligation, the strict meaning of ‘ought’. But there is also a question why I should listen to any given pronouncement from this or that person, or whence comes the authority of an individual or group of individuals to influence belief and action. The answer is that it is an authority that is partially earned, but also granted even when it is not earned because I have freely chosen to grant it. Ultimately, that choice is the choice of a way of life.

Truth OR meaning?

Diana asked:

What is more important ‘knowing the truth’ or ‘finding meaning in life’? Why?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I owe you an apology, Diana, as I am not going to attempt to answer your question directly. Instead, I will do what writers on philosophy often do, sometimes, to the great annoyance of those who ask philosophical questions. I will question the question.

First off, are you asking me about what I, personally, find more important? Or are you asking for a judgement that applies to every human being at every time? I feel more than a little uneasy about laying down the law!

And how do you evaluate ‘importance’? Are we talking about a choice based on what makes you happier, more contented? I might be happier not knowing a particular truth, although it is considered important to know it. For example, an unpleasant secret about a member of my family.

Then is importance a matter of priority? That we should always choose one above the other? I can’t think of an example where one would have to do this. Truths are discovered through investigation or looking. To find meaning implies something about the finder — their personal beliefs or psychology — in addition to the object or activity that is found to be meaningful. Two persons might discover the same truth, one finds it meaningful and the other does not.

And what do you mean by ‘finding’? The term implies that there is some existing thing to be found, which in turn implies a truth. On the other hand, you can make or create meaning through an activity that arouses your interest or passions, to take a random example, making statues out of match sticks. There is no question of truth or falsity, only what moves or excites you, regardless of what others think of your hobby.

Which ‘truth’ are we talking about? THE truth is no small thing. Jesus is reputed to have said, ‘I am the truth’. In the Christian religion, Father, Son and Holy Ghost represent nothing less than the ultimate nature of reality. Now, we are onto something important, because I, too, as well as many millions of other human beings, would love to know the answer to this question. What is there, ultimately? Quarks and superstrings? Or super-intelligent aliens? Or gods on Mount Olympus playing chess with human chess pieces? Or 1s and 0s in a galactic super-computer? If, as I strongly suspect, this is a question which human beings are incapable of finding an answer to, that would make your question appear redundant.

Can you ‘find’ meaning even in the case where the beliefs required are false? This is perhaps the most interesting take on your question.

In the hit song, ‘California Dreaming’ the Mamas and Papas sing, ‘I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray’. (In José Feliciano’s cover version, he sings ‘began to pray’ which ruins the sense of the line.) The person in question has gone into the church to escape from the cold. But why the need to ‘pretend’? The preacher ‘likes the cold’ because it brings people in from the street. You get down on your knees out of respect, or maybe you don’t want to be the only person in the congregation standing. It is also true that a person who does not believe can yet find comfort in prayer. One of the more curious facts about human beings is the way we happily enter into a fiction — knowing that it is a fiction — which has some kind of meaning for us.

Or, maybe, finally, you are talking about the nature of philosophy itself. I remember as a first-year undergraduate being taught to deprecate the question of the ‘meaning of life’, as a popular misconception about the nature of philosophy. From the point of view of the English-speaking ‘analytic’ tradition, there are far more important and interesting questions to investigate, which yield interesting answers. I have come to see this as somewhat narrow-minded. I, personally, find it more meaningful to ask questions that maybe do not have an answer, and appreciate and enjoy the wonder of that discovery.

Quietism in philosophy

Christian asked:

Is Quietism the closest thing there is to an “anti-philosophy” philosophy?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Nice one, Christian. This is the first time in 23 years that we’ve been asked this question, and it is undoubtedly very relevant to my own research.

Wittgenstein is most often quoted as an example of a quietist approach to philosophy. Here is a paragraph from his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations which makes the point with pungent force:

133. It is not our aim to refine or complete the system of rules for the use of our words in unheard-of ways.

For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.

The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. Instead, we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off. Problems are solved (difficulties eliminated), not a single problem.

There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.

My former thesis supervisor at Oxford University, John McDowell, is well-known for advocating a quietist reading of the later Wittgenstein. It was a topic that we argued over on a number of occasions. McDowell once confessed to me that his main motivation for doing philosophy (or what he understood as ‘philosophy’) was the statements made by other philosophers. G.E. Moore would be another example. Trained as a classicist, McDowell’s most notable gift is a finely-tuned sense of when a philosophical pronouncement is ‘off’ in some subtle way. I still have his painstaking notes on my D.Phil thesis running to a dozen pages or more.

It has been a matter of debate whether one calls the later Wittgenstein’s view ‘anti-philosophy’ or meta-philosophy. I would argue, however, that it is neither. If you read Philosophical Investigations, rather than just dip in here and there, you will find yourself thinking about some of the deepest questions in philosophy. And Wittgenstein believed that these were worth thinking about. The only difference from previous philosophical works — of course, it is a huge difference — is that the ‘clarity’ we achieve is not a ‘theory’, or some astonishingly new a priori insight into the nature of reality, but rather a sense of liberation, a heavy, Sisyphean load taken off the philosopher’s shoulders.

This represents a radical take on the aims and methods of philosophy, even more so than philosophers like Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, whose works, innovative as they are, seem less challenging to the status quo in English-speaking philosophy.

As someone who feels that heavy weight keenly, I don’t agree with Wittgenstein that the questions that exercise me are somehow mistaken or illusory. For example, consider the puzzling statement, ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.’ (See my eponymous book subtitled The Idiotic Conundrum I believe that there are truths about the ultimate nature of reality that human beings may, possibly, never get to know. And, yes, it is tormenting to know that I will die with these questions still unanswered. You could say that this is a classic case of the kind of philosophizing that Wittgenstein, and McDowell, are against!

This should not take anything away from Philosophical Investigations, one of the most important works in philosophy published in the 20th century. As with other great philosophers, it is important to distinguish Wittgenstein’s philosophical contributions from his view of the significance of those contributions. One thing I do agree with, as I argued in my D.Phil thesis, is that we are looking for a complete solution to the problems that grip us — even if such a solution, as I believe, is unlikely ever to be achieved.

I conclude this answer with a quote from my Metaphysics of Meaning ( which illustrates the extent to which I agree with Wittgenstein’s remark in para. 133:

Metaphysics demands completeness and wholeness because ultimate reality is not something of which one could rest content with a partial view. The very uniqueness of metaphysical knowledge, by contrast with other forms of knowledge, its lack of corroborating evidence from any other field of inquiry renders insecure any knowledge of ultimate reality which does not not only know it completely but also in such a way as to integrate all partial perceptions into an interconnected, meaningful whole. For metaphysics must aim at complete clarity, even if it knows that such an ideal is practically unattainable; a ‘metaphysics’ which stops short of attempting to solve all the problems which present themselves in the course of its investigations simply risks reduplicating those very problems for which it claims a ‘solution’ in the form of an ineliminable residue of unanswered questions or unsatisfied intuitions.

Question about Ukraine from a Russian philosopher

Igor asked:

Please write how things are now in Europe? You probably know that now Russia is conducting a special operation to free its compatriots in Ukraine. We are told that the United States and many European countries are helping Ukraine. That is, it turns out that there was some kind of confrontation between the countries. According to the news, European countries are refusing Russian gas and oil. I just don’t understand a lot. Maybe you know something?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I have changed your name, Igor, for your own protection. I trust that you do not mind my quoting your recent email to me in full. As your long-time friend and colleague, I owe it to you to be honest about my view concerning the issues you have raised.

You asked how things are. According to the American CIA approximately 15,000 Russian troops have lost their lives in the Ukrainian conflict, which is about the same number as were lost in 10 years in Afghanistan in the 80s. A similar number of Ukrainian troops have died, possibly somewhat less. British MI6 Chief Richard Moore considers the CIA estimate to be on the conservative side and describes the Russian soldiers as ‘cannon fodder’, a term that brings back horrifying memories of the First World War.

I am not stating these as facts, because this web site isn’t about claims or counter-claims concerning the facts. One thing is clear, however, that death isn’t something that is a matter of opinion or a matter of degree — whatever the facts should turn out to be.

First, some necessary context. In the West, we have a political system known as ‘democracy’. What makes that more than just a label? Periodic elections and the right to vote is one possible answer but the problem is in defining what it means for an election to be ‘free and fair’, which is not always the case. A better measure is how a county views freedom of speech and expression. The British philosopher, John Stuart Mill argued that freedom of speech should not be limited by the constraints that apply to freedom of action. According to Mill’s ‘Principle of Liberty’ a person’s actions should be free so long as they do not harm others. However, when it comes to free speech, the truth is best served by free and open debate. It can never be genuinely ‘harmful’ to know the truth.

I don’t know of any country in the world where J.S. Mill’s ideas have been totally accepted. Here, we have laws governing libel and defamation. For a long time the Christian religion was protected by laws against blasphemy, but recently these were revised to include the religion of Islam. It is OK for me to state that I do not believe in the existence of God, or that Jesus was his ‘Son’ or Muhammad his ‘Messenger’, but if I express my honest opinion about certain members of the Christian or Islamic communities, I am liable to be prosecuted and imprisoned for ‘hate crime’.

Despite these limitations, it is fair to say that if you disagree with the actions of the UK government, you are free to say so. Boris Johnson was regularly denounced on British radio and TV, to the extent that must have left Russian listeners to the BBC astonished. That is because the real core of democracy is the principle of self-correction. Mistakes, errors of judgement will inevitably be made by the politicians in power — no human being is infallible — but they know that critics will be quick to pounce. (Personally, I was sorry to see Boris go, but there will be plenty of people hooting with laughter and deriding me for my naivete.)

Now, let us look at the Republics in the former USSR. You may be aware of the web page that I have maintained for a number of years, the ‘Gallery of Russian Thinkers’ I was strongly criticised for including Merab Mamardashvili (1930-1990) on the grounds that he was not Russian but Georgian. Georgia succeeded from the USSR in 1991. I pointed out to my critic that David Hume is included in the list of great ‘English’ philosophers, although we was, in fact, a Scot. But perhaps the site should be called ‘Russian-speaking philosophers’ rather than simply ‘Russian philosophers’.

The point is that Ukrainians are proud of their independence, just as Georgians are proud of theirs. Georgia and Ukraine were once part of the great Soviet empire but now they are not. Empires do not last forever — the British Empire, for example. There are still those who are sorry about that fact, but just as many who are filled with shame and remorse for the things that were done to enable the British to maintain their grip on the Empire. There are not a few Russians, I suspect, who are horrified by what Putin is doing in Ukraine, but dare not express their views.

It is true that people whose country of origin is Russia are widely distributed amongst the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, where, like elsewhere, they form a large minority. J.S. Mill remarked that democracy is the ‘tyranny of the majority’, so it is not an inconsiderable problem that minorities do not always get a fair deal. The government makes decisions that they disagree with. That does not justify a ‘special operation of liberation’, as you call it, that has resulted in so many deaths and widespread devastation.

As a philosophy professor, you are no doubt familiar with Plato’s great dialogue, Republic. Plato was no friend of democracy — at least, in the brutal form that it was practised in Ancient Greece, where a person could be thrown into exile if the mob demanded it — but read what he says about ‘the tyrant’, and how the tyrant maintains his grip on power. It is my belief — a belief widely held in the West, although of course that does not entail that it is true — that Vladimir Putin is a tyrant, of the classic variety. He has learned from Machiavelli that it is much better for the ‘Prince’ to cultivate popular support, but I would not like to guess the number of Russian citizens who despise Putin and his cronies and desperately wish to be rid of them.

These are questions, Igor, that you will have to decide for yourself. As I said before, it is not the job of philosophy to argue over the facts. Philosophers ask how do you know?. That’s the typical form of a philosophical question. How do you know that you are being told the truth about Ukraine? Why aren’t there more people in Russia — as there would be in the West — vociferously and and even violently protesting against Putin’s ‘special operation’? If, as I suspect, you have already begun to harbour suspicions, I encourage you to use your powers of reason and logic to decide where the burden of proof lies.

Existentialism and feeling

Edie asked:

I hope you do not mind me contacting you on this email. I watch your videos on YouTube frequently, they really fascinate me and I think you have great way of explaining things. When you talk about questioning the big questions everyday like why am I here, who am I etc. relate a lot as many do. My question is, does dealing with that kind of everyday existentialism get easier with time. I almost feel crushed under the weight of these questions and I’m not even 20.

A loyal subscriber

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you, Edie. I like the term ‘everyday existentialism’. I’m not your average existentialist, or even a special kind of existentialist, although I see connections between my notion of being a ‘philosophizer’ and existentialist thinking. Sometimes the historical baggage that goes along with a term can impede rather than help understanding, and so it is in this case. So I would say to anyone attracted to existentialism, try to forget everything you’ve learned, or been told, and look at these questions with fresh eyes.

You feel crushed. I know what that’s like. But my question is, Why is feeling crushed the most appropriate feeling? Are feelings self-justifying? What right have I, or anyone, got to say that you ought not to feel crushed, or that you ought to feel something else?!

What do you say to someone, a white person, say, who feels uncomfortable in the company of a person of colour? There might be various explanations for this feeling, but that is all besides the point. Which is that the feeling in question is one that they must learn to get over. And there is ample evidence that this is something well within the power of a human being, indeed one of the essential ways in which we differ from non-human animals.

It is a point made by contemporary philosophers in the analytic tradition that feelings and emotions have a ‘formal object’. As a matter of logic, there are certain feelings that one cannot have. Let’s say we are walking down the street, and I point to a trash can and inform you, quite seriously, that I am proud of that trash can. ‘How can you be proud of that trash can,’ you say, when it isn’t even your trash can?’ (Let’s imagine I keep my trash can very clean and polish it regularly.) I reply, ‘You can’t tell me what I feel. I feel what I feel. And when I look at that particular trash can, I feel pride!’ The point of this story is that the question here isn’t how you can know how I feel, or even how I can know how I feel. It simply makes no sense to say that I feel proud of the trash can. As a matter of sheer logic.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop a human being from being illogical. And who’s to say whether logic is the most important thing here? And, in any case, how does this apply to existentialism?

Over the last couple of centuries, a number of claims have been made about existentialism relating to human feelings that are considered appropriate. Let me list some: ‘Fear and trembling’, ‘Anxiety’, ‘Anguish’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘Nausea’, ‘Hilarity’ (let’s not forget that!) Feeling crushed, interestingly, isn’t any of these. But let’s think of actual occasions when you feel, or have felt, crushed. A person with whom you had a serious romantic interest tells you to your face that you make them sick and they can’t stand the sight of you. Your boss gives you the sack claiming that your work has been unsatisfactory, when all the while you thought you were doing well. You have just succeeded in paying off all your bills when a letter comes informing you that you owe thousands in miscalculated income tax. I’m sure you can think of other relevant examples. What do they all have in common?

We can go though the same rigmarole with each of the terms in my list, for example, ‘anguish’. In fact, this could be a useful philosophical investigation, in the style of Wittgenstein, reminding ourselves how words are actually used. The bottom line is: we don’t know what is the appropriate thing to feel when confronting the ultimate questions. We don’t know this, even if a particular feeling overwhelms us. Think again of the racist, or the person who felt proud of a random trash can.

I can see an avenue for investigation, along broadly existentialist lines, that bypasses the question of what we know, or could conceivably come to know about the answers to ultimate questions, and instead concentrates on exploring feelings, not in the style of psychology (which would be interesting in itself) but rather in terms of the ‘logic of feeling’. The answer might surprise you: that there is no feeling that a human being has ever felt in the history of the human race that would be appropriate. The truth is, not simply that we don’t know stuff, but rather that we don’t even know how to feel about the fact that we don’t know.

This conclusion is puzzling, baffling even, but it is also liberating. You are free to let go of your seemingly ‘crushed’ feelings, and feel something else, something more positive. Like healthy curiosity, for example. Curosity is, or can be, energizing. When you are curious about one thing, there is plenty of room to be curious about other things as well. ‘Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’ Remember that?!

What is the aim of philosophy? Is it knowledge? Of what, exactly? Or is it, as I suspect, rather to orient ourselves towards reality, to find a course of action that is most appropriate to our recognition of the ultimate questions? That is where I am at now. The answer is not obvious. I don’t even know of a philosopher who has made any significant progress in this area. Maybe, it isn’t even ‘philosophy’ but rather a novel kind of ‘theology’? Why not? Why should the term we use matter? It is not as if you needed to believe in God in order to be a theologian!

Language as a picture of reality

William asked:

Letters are just lines. The combinations are finite. So why do we fall so heavily onto language to communicate and solve the nature of big philosophical questions? Language will never have the capacity to represent reality, so why try? Why don’t we consider it a lost cause?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Letters and words are just lines on paper, and spoken words are just sounds. And yet they seem to be capable of representing a reality external to themselves. And that is truly something to wonder at. I am using words now, tapping keys, making letters appear on a white screen. And although it is not altogether clear what my words represent — this answer isn’t just a description of some facts about the world. — i intend them to be understood in the way I mean and not in some other way. Representation, speakers’ intentions, meaning are fundamental concepts in the philosophy of language.

The best way to answer your question is to give a bit of the history of this puzzle. Arguably, the first philosopher to realize the philosophical problem of how words can represent reality was Plato, in his dialogue Cratylus, although the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus had first posed the question. How can there be such a thing as meaning when the world around us is constantly changing? You can never step into the same river twice, so how come we are able to use a word like ‘river’ when the object that this word-label is attached to is different on every occasion of its use?

In the 17th century, Locke proposed that words are ultimately just labels that we attach to mental ‘ideas’ that are produced by our five senses. The ultimate meaning of any statement is the combination of ideas that it resolves to. In other words, lines on paper or spoken sounds get their meaning from something that is going on inside our heads. It’s a two-stage process. Meanwhile, on the continent, Leibniz, Locke’s famous adversary, entertained the idea of a characteristica universalis, a language that would articulate reality so clearly that all philosophical problems could be resolved by calculation. In other words, Leibniz recognized that the nature of the language that we use sets limits to what can be thought.

Then, in the nineteenth century, came an obscure mathematician who had a side interest in philosophy. His name was Gottlob Frege. Frege created the first effective system of symbolic logic — the Begriffschrifft — that was capable for the first time of representing the quantifiers, ‘All x…’ or ‘Some x…’ in such a way that all possible logical relations between quantified statements were displayed clearly, a task that had defeated Aristotle and generations of philosophers in the centuries that followed right up to Frege’s time.

This is the context in which Ludwig Wittgenstein made his revolutionary contribution. In the first decade of the 20th century, Wittgenstein had gone up to Manchester University to study aeronautics but became fascinated by the mathematics involved. Where do numbers come from? What do they represent? The man to see was Bertrand Russell, in Cambridge, who had taken Frege’s ideas about symbolic logic to the next level. Unlike Frege, Russell saw himself as making a contribution to epistemology and metaphysics, and not just to mathematics. Like Locke before him, Russell saw that the logical analysis of language could reveal something about the way words are able to be vehicles for knowledge about the external world.

Then came the First World War. Wittgenstein joined the Austrian Army and was soon at the front, where he wrote his famous 1914-1918 Notebooks. These laid the basis for a work published after the end of the war, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

As an undergraduate student, this was one of the first philosophy books I picked up, and it blew my mind. Wittgenstein started with what seemed like an obvious thought: words arranged in a sentence form a picture of reality. Any statement you can think of ultimately resolves into simple or atomic sentences which refer to bits of the world and whose structure literally displays the relations those bits have to one another. An analogy frequently quoted is that of chess notation. Every possible chess game can be represented in algebraic form by numbering the 64 squares from a to h and 1 to 8. The world outside of chess isn’t like that you say. But Wittgenstein said, it may not be obvious at first sight, but it is!

That was the mind-blowing idea.

In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein came to see the limitations of the picture theory of meaning. It was not, as he had previously believed, a satisfactory answer to the question how it is possible for words to mean anything. But that’s a side issue so far as your question is concerned. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein is adamant that nothing can be said that isn’t resolvable into pictures of reality, or representations of plain fact. And it is clear that nearly everything we are interested in philosophy requires language to go beyond its fact-stating function. In other words, most of what philosophers say is gibberish. All statements about ethics and values are gibberish. The very question, why is there anything at all? or why am I here to experience it? is gibberish. It seems to mean something in my head but that’s just my subjective impression. Objectively, nothing is being said.

In response to this problem, it is no help to be told, as the later Wittgenstein claimed, that there are numerous ‘language games’, so that discourse about God, or values, or possibly the ultimate nature of reality are just games we play with words, and hence legitimate on that human-centric level. When I ask these questions I am not ‘playing’. I mean what I say. I am looking for an objective reality. I want to know. What is so frustrating is that any account of how it is possible for words to have meaning falls short of being able to explain exactly what it is that I ‘mean’ to actually mean. But I shall leave the question there.