Sunday, 30 August 2009

Report on UK Kant Society Conference 2009

Having just returned from attending this event, held this year at Lancaster University, it struck me as worthwhile to do a posting on the major themes that emerged from it and to note some of the ways this seems significant in relation to contemporary Kantian philosophy. Before moving on to an account of these general points I should mention three factors that seriously impressed me. The first was the number and quality of graduate papers this year. As occurred earlier this year when I co-organized the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, the graduate contributions were of very high quality. As with the BSHP, graduates who attended demonstrated that there are good grounds for hope with regard to the continuation of philosophical research of serious value.

The second factor was the surprisingly high number of US contributors this year. Like the first factor this is a welcome development, revealing as it does the increasingly international nature of philosophical work. The third factor was the larger number of women philosophers, a development, like the first two, promising a more creative future for philosophical research.

The conference theme this year was "Kant: morality and society" and the organizer, Garrath Williams, is to be commended for bringing together a wide range of papers on the theme in question, many of great interest. The three plenary papers were certainly very different in both approach and focus. The first, by Stephen Darwall, covered the question of an alleged "gap" in Kant's derivation of the formula of universal law, treating this gap as appearing in both the first and second parts of the Groundwork but presenting his own theory of the need for a "second-person" standpoint as indicating a way of amending the derivation so that it succeed. Somewhat surprisingly, given his theme, Darwall did not refer to earlier work on this question such as appears in the books of Bruce Aune and Samuel Kerstein. An additional problem with Darwall's treatment of the alleged "gap" is that it appears to rest on the presumption that such strange creatures as principled egoists and act consequentialists not only exist but, in existing, have to be committed to the view that others should adopt the same principles! Despite these problems the paper was a thoughtful contribution and certainly suggests reasons both for reading his new book on the second personal standpoint in more detail and treating it to a more extended response.

The second plenary paper was by Arthur Ripstein and concerned the theory, adopted by John Rawls from H.L.A. Hart, that we need to distinguish between laws/rules and their "benefits". This theory, whose remoter origin resides in utilitarian responses to "rule-fetishism" has an inherently de-bunking effect on the understanding of rules, and was opposed point by point by Ripstein to a Kantian theory. The interesting point about Ripstein's treatment of Kantian theory was that he reprised the central motifs of the account of "private right" in the Doctrine of Right and showed in the process that it was with regard particularly to these elements that the distinction between rules and their "benefits" was especially prominent. Ripstein's highly impressive paper brought out the need, by contrast to this theory, for Kantians to emphasize a view of rules that did not regard the "benefits" of them as something intrinsically separable from them. Ripstein has elsewhere extended his treatment of the Doctrine of Right and this account, like that of Darwall, bears much more extended investigation.

The final plenary speech, by Tamar Schapiro, contrasted markedly with the earlier two in being a more general paper that was less strictly focused directly on Kantian themes. Schapiro's paper concerned a distinction between two pictures of the relationship between passion and action. On one picture (argued to be shared by both empiricists and rationalists) the agent is viewed as unitary and passions and reasons treated as part of a continuum, not different in principle. As opposed to this, the other view, identified as Kantian, treats passions and reasons as different in kind and passions as generally adopted in the light of reasons. The effect of this second picture, Schapiro argued, was a bipartite, not a unitary, view of agency. Debate concerning this paper centred on arguments as to whether Kant is really committed to such a bipartite picture of agency with many claiming that this is not so though wishing to maintain the division between passions and reasons that Schapiro drew. The discussion subsequent to this paper was in many respects more engaging than the paper itself but also brought out clearly the questions posed for philosophy of action by Kantian practical philosophy.

The parallel sessions divided between those at which faculty members spoke and those devoted to graduate students. Topics discussed in them included Kant's view of suicide (taken to be unsustainable in itself but revealing of some key elements of his general view), the relationship of duties to humans and duties to animals, the relationship between Kantian ethics and aesthetics, the nature of Kantian respect, further reflections on the derivation of the formula of universal law, two papers on aspects of the doctrine of right, and, perhaps most impressively, a paper on provisional duty by Heather Roff. In the only paper specifically focused on the question of international right Roff demonstrated in detail both that all duties at this level are provisional and that the question of their provisionality raises important questions for Kant's whole Doctrine of Right. This paper was perhaps the single most inspiring one delivered at the conference and indicative of the centrality of the area of international right for the study of the whole of Kant's practical philosophy.

For domestic reasons I had to miss the final day of the conference and so this report is not complete. However, from the events I attended what becomes clear is a division between two general types of work being undertaken on Kantian practical philosophy. On the one hand are papers which are either highly general in feel (such as the plenary by Schapiro) or specifically focused on clarifying questions in Kant's critique of morality, especially as found in the Groundwork. The characteristics of these papers is that they are engaged in foundational questions, whether of moral philosophy, moral psychology or philosophy of action. On the other hand are papers either focused on the doctrine of right directly or on questions that require a concern with Kantian casuistry or with the implications of the general practical philosophy. The latter sort of papers are the sort that are more capable of speaking to other non-Kantian philosophers or to a broader public concerned with moral and political questions though the former kind remain significant in requiring us constantly to return to the basis of Kantian views.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Division of the Preliminary Articles

After detailing the 6th preliminary article and prior to moving to the 3 definitive articles Kant proposes a division of the preliminary articles. This division concerns the distinction between the "strict" articles that are required to be implemented at once and the ones that include latitude. Here I'll first mention the way the division demarcates the preliminary articles before reflecting on the principle by which the division is meant to be justified and whether Kant has applied it well.

The articles that are presented as "strict" and requiring immediate implementation are the first, the fifth and the sixth. The first is the one that most clearly related to principles of publicity ruling out secret reservations in the case of peace treaties. The 5th concerned the general rule of non-intervention in the constitution and government of other states and the 6th concerned dishonourable stratagems in times of war. The 6th article does relate to a publicity test though it is not primarily set out in terms of it whilst the 5th was found to be complicated both in including a mitigation and a mitigation of the mitigation.

The articles that would involve "latitude" in application and no necessary immediate action would be the second, third, and fourth, concerning the purchase of one state by another, the abolition of standing armies and the ruling out of national debt with regard to external affairs. The 3rd and 4th are the ones commonly thought to be out of date though I cast doubt on this assumption but the second on acquiring a state certainly could not be thought so.

The principle at work in Kant's distinction between the preliminary articles is between articles that require immediate implementation and ones that can be delayed though not indefinitely. The reason why delay can be given any room at all is not however clearly indicated with only one example treated as providing any reason at all. This is the example of the 2nd preliminary article on acquiring a state. Though such acquisition is not in accord with right there was a general public opinion which accepted it at the time says Kant. Even if this is correct it is unclear how it relates either to the article on standing armies or that on national debt. Further more, there is often support in public opinion for the use of the dishonourable stratagems of article 6 but this has not prevented Kant from placing these under the heading of "strict" articles.

It has to be said that this division of the articles is not handled in a way that either shows a serious ground for differential treatment of the specific requirements of the articles or why it is applied in the way it is. This account is perhaps one of the least satisfactory of the arguments in Perpetual Peace.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Dishonourable Stratagems

The 6th and final preliminary article of Perpetual Peace concerns certain acts that Kant argues have no place in war and are dubbed by him "dishonourable stratagems". Included under this heading are the employment of assassins or poisoners, breach of surrender and incitement to treason in the enemy state. The discussion that is given of these concentrates not on the specific examples however but rather on the principle underlying the category. So it is worth first considering the discussion of the principle prior to returning to the examples.

The discussion of the principle in question points to the concern that wars take place at all only due to the fact that there exists no court that has rightful force with regards to disputes between states or, in other words, that there is a state of nature between them. Since there is no ground for determining the right in the dispute it follows that neither enemy can be declared unjust in themselves, states Kant. It is rather only by means of the outcome that a verdict is delivered. Since there exists no prior ground of right between the states there is no basis for declaring that a given enemy deserves annihilation. In fact if one state declares this against another then the second has an equal right to declare the same in return which would produce the perpetual peace "of the graveyard of the human race" (Ak. 8: 347).

So it is against this general background of argument that Kant's prohibitions on certain strategies is to be understood. The strategies in question can only be grounded on a relation to the enemy that treats that enemy as something deserving to be classed in a manner quite different from oneself since the tactics and strategies in question deny common humanity. Thus the general argument turns, as we have discovered to be the case with other preliminary articles, on reference to the formula of humanity. The second point of the general argument is that the strategies in question have no means of being terminated once begun but will create a perpetual state of war.

There are a number of questions that arise from considering the argument for the principle in question here. Firstly, the assertion of the "state of nature" between states is one that Kant returns to, as we shall see in future postings, on a number of occasions. It is however denied by some contemporary political theorists who assert that international law has taken us beyond the "state of nature" picture. This is the view of Habermas for example and the argument between Kant and Habermas on this point will have to be returned to subsequently.

Secondly, the argument that there is no such thing as an "unjust enemy" appears to be one that is difficult to sustain in light of the 20th century experience of Nazism, a regime that appears to incarnate inhumanity. It is however still worth appealing to some version of Kant's argument even here as is done by those who object to the fire-bombing of Dresden. However, even if mitigated by examples like this, it still appears less obvious now than it did to Kant, that there are no grounds for declaring some enemies to be in themselves intrinsically "unjust". This evidently points again to the question of the status of "international law".

Thirdly, Kant's general concern with preventing perpetual war is one that has returned to haunt subsequent theory of relations between states. The suggestion of such a condition having been reached is forcefully presented in George Orwell's 1984 on the one hand and in the development of the Marxist theory of the permanent arms economy on the other (the latter part of the theory of imperialism). The appeal during the Cold War to the theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD) also involved a suggestion converse to that animating Kant's discussion since according to this the best way of preventing war was to constantly threaten the arrival of the perpetual peace of the graveyard.

Finally, returning to Kant's specific examples, we can see in them an appeal for guidelines in the event of war as to what constitutes acceptable conduct, an appeal that relates Kant to the earlier Just War tradition. Ruling out use of assassins or poisoners is clearly intended to prevent the systematic use of deceit being adopted and in the remarks Kant uses a similar justification against the use of spies since these involve use of others dishonesty. The appeal here is clearly connected to a principle of publicity being assumed though not at this point in Perpetual Peace directly argued for. Incitement to treason and breach of surrender both involve breach of trust by contrast and little is added by way of specific discussion of the point of taking this seriously.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Non-Intervention in Other States

The 5th preliminary article of Perpetual Peace is one of the most controversial elements of it. It has been subjected to repeated correction, re-interpretation and "defence" of a sort that is not necessarily helpful. The question about the basis, role and limits of intervention in the affairs of other states has taken on new life in IR theory since at least the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. The NATO campaign in Kosovo, the two Gulf Wars, the war in Afghanistan, the UK intervention in Sierra Leone, the US interventions in Somalia,the Russo-Georgian war last summer, all involved claims concerning the rightful basis of intervention. Nor has the question of it only been invoked in cases where intervention has taken place but also in ones where it hasn't but perhaps should have. The most recent situation of this kind was in Rwanda though the key historical example was the Spanish Civil War. There is also some argument to this effect running at present in the wake of the coup in Honduras.

Given the weight of the question it clearly cannot be settled merely in a posting concerning the fifth preliminary article of Perpetual Peace but will require considerable attention, both in relation to the working out of general principles and also in attending to the numerous complexities of given particular examples. The fifth article of Perpetual Peace is controversial in its interpretation precisely due to its connection with such larger issues.

In looking at this fifth preliminary article it is useful also to look at the context of Kant's writing of the whole work. Perpetual Peace was published in 1795, the same year in which Prussia withdrew from a coalition against revolutionary France and concluded a separate peace with the republic. It is against the backdrop of the revolutionary wars that Kant frames his fifth preliminary article. The article states that: "No state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution and government of another state" (Ak. 8: 346). The principle simply as stated thus indicates that there is no ground for alteration of the political affairs of another state. However, despite the fact that the 5th article seems to assert something fairly authoritative, whatever one's view of the principle in question, reading Kant's discussion of the article suggests instantly that in fact things are complicated.

Kant goes on to specify that things are different if the state in question has already split into two with two separate elements laying claim to the whole. It is different, that is, in cases where a civil war has sundered the pre-existent state. Since this was clearly the case with the Spanish Civil War (and is one way in which the break-up of Yugoslavia could be described) it follows that in such a case Kant's preliminary article does not apply. The situation in which such civil war is taking place is, Kant declares, "anarchy" and so it is not interference for a foreign state to give assistance to one of the warring parties.

Having introduced this mitigation of the original principle Kant proceeds to mitigate the mitigation. The next point is that for the foreign state to be able to intervene in a way that is not interference requires that the internal conflict be "critical" as otherwise such intervention would make the autonomy of all states insecure. The judgment in question might well be thought to have been the basis of the coalition formed against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1st Gulf War since Kuwait was here forcibly incorporated into a neighbouring state despite not itself being internally disrupted. However whilst this mitigation of the mitigation might initially appear helpful it clearly introduces an important problem in its wake. When the foreign state is making a decision concerning such intervention without wishing to be accused of "interference" how is it to decide whether or not the situation is "critical" enough to justify it? No criteria are given in Kant's discussion of the 5th preliminary article. As we will see subsequently the basic principle of the 5th preliminary article is also not evidently in harmony with other elements of Kant's discussion.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Standing Armies and National Debt

The 3rd and 4th preliminary articles of Perpetual Peace are two of the most apparently outdated. In the 3rd Kant advocates the abolition ("in time") of standing armies altogether whilst in the 4th he argues against the contraction of national debt in regard to the external affairs of a state. Given the almost universal adoption of standing armies (with the exception of Costa Rica) and the general prevalence of state budgeting through deficits (particularly in the US) these provisions appear somewhat unworldly.

However, on looking more closely at these articles, we can see more connection with contemporary affairs than we might expect. In discussing the 3rd article on the abolition of standing armies Kant mentions problems that have recurred in subsequent conduct of international affairs referring to the tendency towards arms races as well as launching an objection to the use of human beings as mere tools in the hands of a state. The reference to the use of human beings as tools is also capable of being grasped as a general problem with conscription rather than armies as such. Kant makes clear that a civilian force made up of volunteers is quite different in principle. So if this 3rd article is grasped as stating that no state shall have conscription given its tendency to instill arms races and to treat human beings in a despotic manner that runs counter to the formula of humanity then it is easier to see its contemporary relevance.

The 4th article on national debt distinguishes between the use of such debt for internal infrastructural purposes and as a "treasury for war" and does not rule against the former. Not only is this so but there is a warning contained in the discussion of this 4th article against a very contemporary problem, namely, the potential bankruptcy of a state that, in preparing its debt for war, entangles other states in its loss "without their having deserved it". Given the generalized notion of the "military-industrial complex" as identified initially by President Eisenhower and the tendency of states with large budget deficits to create circumstances of financial ruin for others this 4th article is similarly susceptible to contemporary interpretation as the 3rd was. Now it can be understood as a warning against large deficit budgeting and a particular indication of problems with states with large military industrial complexes. Not, then, so outdated as all that.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Autonomy and Moral Personality

The second preliminary article of Perpetual Peace, like the first, is formulated negatively. It forbids acquisition of one state by another whether by means of "inheritance, exchange, purchase, or donation". (Ak. 8: 344) The reference here is partly archaic now since the notion of inheritance suggests princely houses and their relation to each other, a reference further indicated when, in discussion of this article, Kant mentions the notion of states marrying one another!

However there is much in this article that remains relevant. Firstly, in arguing for it, Kant refers to the notion that the state is a "moral person" and argues that the reason why there is a problem with purchasing a state is because such action would treat a person like a thing. This contrast between a person and a thing was already at work in the discussion of autonomy in the Groundwork where Kant contrasted dignity with "price" indicating that what possesses dignity has, by virtue of that, something beyond the value of price (Ak. 4: 434-5). In indicating that the state possesses a personality Kant is hence treating it as a moral entity equivalent to a person and in being so equivalent requiring moral respect. Failure to engage with a state on this level is to treat it in a way that violates, Kant states, "the idea of the original contract, apart from which no right over a people can be thought" (Ak. 8: 344).

Finally, in discussing this article, Kant also argues against the mercenary hiring by one state of the troops of another on the grounds that such treatment involves relating to the subjects in question as items that are fungible. Hence in declaring the moral personality of the state Kant is articulating a further ground, of a political sort, for respecting the autonomy of the individuals who are citizens of a state.

Green Dam Up-Date

The back-down by the Chinese government over the installation of Green Dam Youth Escort has gone a step further. On the 13th August Industry and Information Technology minister Li Yizhong confirmed that installation of it on privately owned machines would now be voluntary and not compulsory also suggesting that the view that it would be compulsory was based on poorly drafted regulations.

The backdown by the Chinese government is however only partial since, although the software won't be forcibly installed on privately owned machines it will still be mandatory for all machines in public places such as schools, libraries and even internet cafes. Since the majority of internet connections in China are made in such public places the government is hence still firmly committed to censorship. The ostensible purpose of Green Dam Youth Escort is blocking of pornography but it bears repeating that this includes all references to gay sites including ones that are entirely political and may include little by way of visual content. China is also officially ranked 167 out of 173 countries surveyed in terms of internet freedom by Reporters Without Borders.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

War and Secrecy

As specified in the posting "Publicity II" the reading of Perpetual Peace given in the first set of postings on publicity concerned only a very small portion of this text, namely, that in which the formulas of publicity were explicitly set out. The text of the work involves much more than this and I will, in a series of postings, go through the key formulations of the work from the beginning with specific attention to each clause that involves reference to questions concerning publicity.

The work opens with a brief introductory paragraph in which Kant states that, since "practical politicians" tend to look down on theoretical ones as ineffectual, so, it follows that they should not censor them since their works are of no danger to the state! The first section of the work then opens and this contains preliminary articles for perpetual peace among states, of which there are six. The first states: "No treaty of peace shall be held to be such if it is made with a secret reservation of material for a future war". (Ak. 8: 343) Notably Kant here immediately makes a reference to secrecy and indicates that acting in a way that requires it - thus acting against not merely the negative but also the positive formula of publicity - shows an action that is not in accord with its professed intention and this divergence between the act's real intent and its professed one is sufficient for the act to be deemed wrong.

The key point that is made with regard to such a secret reservation is that it shows that there is in this case no commitment to peace and so the treaty that has been signed by one who holds to this reservation has no claim to be called a peace treaty. Not only is such an act one that fails to match the expressed intent of offering peace it is also, says Kant, "beneath the dignity" of a ruler. To justify the divergence between expressed and real intent would require what Kant terms "jesuitical casuistry" and it is this that is beneath the dignity of the ruler (or minister). Such "refined" calculations demonstrate a principled commitment to avoiding consideration of what principles of publicity would involve and it is this that makes them beneath the dignity of the ruler. In including this reference to dignity Kant is implying a commitment to publicity is part of autonomous moral consideration since, as Kant claimed in the Groundwork: "Autonomy is therefore the ground of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature" (Ak. 4: 436). If to deliberate in a way that requires secrecy is to lack dignity, i.e. to be swayed by heteronomy, then, by contrast, to act in a way that requires publicity, as is involved in the affirmative principle of publicity, is to act in accordance with autonomy. This reading of the first preliminary article hence confirms that the conclusion of the work with the affirmative principle of publicity is structurally already signaled from the beginning of the work and shows that this affirmative principle is the key formula of it.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Guest Contribution: Hunger Strike and Mujahadeen

Professor Alison Assiter of the University of the West of England has requested that the following text by her be posted on this on this blog as part of her campaign to get publicity for the situation described here:

"Outside the US Embassy in London, a group of exiled Iranians have staged a hunger strike and 24-hour protest. A number of them have been on hunger strike for two weeks. They began their protest on Tuesday 28th July, when Iraqi police set out to establish a station inside the headquarters of the PMOI or MEK – Camp Ashraf in Iraq. A number of their members were killed and hundreds more were wounded. The protesters want US or UN protection for their members in Ashraf City. The raid from Iraqi police coincided with demonstrations inside and outside Iran against the clerical regime.

The politics of the issue are complex. Supporters say that the MEK forms the backbone of the Iranian resistance to the Islamic fundamentalist regime. Critics question this. There are many more differences of political view and feelings run high on both sides. The position of the Obama administration remains unclear. There are hunger strikers also demonstrating opposite the White House in Washington.

One thing, however, is clear. This is that followers of the Mujahadeen, now residing in Europe and the US, place a fundamentally different emphasis on the individual and on the value of individual human life from the value attached to the separateness and distinctness of persons by most people in the liberal west. For many years, now, the Mujahadeen have renounced violence. The politics of the suicide bomber are not for them. Indeed such politics are associated with their opponents: the fundamentalist Islamic regime of Iran and their supporters. The Mujahadeen are Muslim, but they claim to advocate a secular democracy for their country.

However, the Mujahadeen value the collective over the individual. The collective welfare of the group takes priority over individual human rights. If the collective welfare of the group demands the sacrifice of some, then those individuals are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the cause.

As one hunger striker put it:’ my blood is no more red than that of the next person and the whole movement is my family’. Another, a 19- year old girl said ‘ I am ready to join Neda’ (the Iranian girl who died in fighting for democracy in Iran recently and who has become a symbol of resistance).

The courage and the resilience of these people is immense. One very significant problem, however, is that few people in the UK know that this hunger strike is going on. Londoners walk along Oxford Street in their thousands doing their shopping, oblivious to the hunger strikers round the corner. Just as it is no longer possible to travel anywhere in the world that some human being has not already visited, so too the ultimate political weapon – hunger strike to the death – has been downgraded. When Bobby Sands went on hunger strike in the early 1980’s, few people in the UK would not have heard of him. Now the use of the hunger strike as a political weapon has become more commonplace. If the cause of the exiled Iranians is to be successful then some version of their story needs to be heard."

Monday, 10 August 2009

Publicity (II)

The first set of postings on the topic of publicity centred on the use of the formulas of publicity in Perpetual Peace. The reason for beginning with this was that it was with the negative formula given there that Axel Gosseries focused discussion in his article on the topic for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As shown in the last set of postings on this topic the treatment of both the examples in Perpetual Peace and the exclusive focus on the negative formula are distinct limitations of Gosseries' analysis. However, not only is this the case but the discussion of publicity by Kant is much wider than would be suggested by just looking at the role of these formulas in Perpetual Peace. (Perpetual Peace itself would also require a much longer analysis than is suggested by just focusing on these formulas.)

In addition to Perpetual Peace, Kant also discusses publicity notably in What Is Enlightenment?, his essay on the unauthorized publication of books, the account of the French Revolution in The Conflict of the Faculties, the account of sensus communis in the Critique of Judgment and, most importantly of all, in the Doctrine of Right. In fact, as will become clearer when we eventually look at the Doctrine of Right, understanding the role of publicity in Kant's account of Right will be essential to the interpretation of Kant's overall political philosophy. Not only is this the case but the examples we treated in Perpetual Peace are also re-treated in these other works with some marked distinctions involved between the varied treatments in different works. So to form a response to Kant's view of publicity will require investigation both of the treatments of it in these different works and an account of the relationship of the works to each other. All of this suggests that, whilst responding to Gosseries' article was suggestive for a beginning treatment of publicity, there is much serious philosophical work that goes beyond that article's analysis.

Clarity and Philosophy

I recently had a disagreement with Nigel Warburton on Twitter concerning the topic of the relationship between clarity and obscurity in philosophy. Warburton tweeted that you should never trust philosophers who can't explain their ideas to intelligent people. That this statement is not just a one-off is confirmed by the fact that his blog is headlined by a quote from John Searle that states: "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself". Warburton appeared surprised that anyone would challenge these comments and suggested, in response to my arguing against these views, that it would be odd to favour obscurity.

The problem with the statements by Warburton is manifold and goes further than responding merely to him. It would be possible to begin by arguing that it is not an appropriate relationship to any philosopher to "trust" them. That is, that trust involves a relation in which one responds to the integrity of someone and perhaps questions of integrity should not be at the forefront of responding to a philosopher. After all, there is nothing about moral qualities that determines the interest of thought one way or the other. This might be thought too sweeping though since surely there are some cases where one might say that revelation of some sort of moral defect prohibited serious consideration? The classic example would be Heidegger's relationship to the Nazi Party but then shouldn't we include the anti-semitism of Frege as well in such evaluations? This kind of point effectively seems to get us nowhere when considering the worthiness or otherwise of contributions to philosophy.

The second question concerns the appeal to the verdict of "intelligent people" whoever they might be. Presumably what is meant here is the notion of the "intelligent public" being people of a certain standard of education, who, despite perhaps knowing little or no philosophy, could hear something and have a basis for evaluating its importance. It's odd that this kind of standard should be invoked at all with regard to philosophy. After all, could the Principia Mathematica meet it? Is it plausible to claim that Book Zeta of Aristotle's Metaphysics could really fit it? Or that the Critique of Pure Reason which Kant declares "could never be popular" could be held to such a standard? All these works involve a technical vocabulary that has to be learnt to read them and require serious study over a long period to really be responded to with any seriousness. Nor are they alone in this as who, after all, could even claim to have got the real point of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding without a lengthy period of reading?

Why, given that the evidence of need for continuous and dedicated study for philosophical works to be responded to, is there even the pretense that ones of any quality could easily be retailed to a general (albeit "intelligent") public? The reason appears to reside in the citation from Searle that Warburton gives, the impression that there is some form of clarity that philosophy needs to aspire to and which can be held as a test for "good" philosophy. What this clarity consists in and how it is to be measured are rarely, if ever, themselves articulated. The citation of Searle reminds some of us of one notorious occasion in which the quest for "clarity" was itself exposed to some very detailed and difficult questions, the occasion of the "debate" (if such it really was) between Searle and Derrida. The original spark of this was Derrida's piece "Signature Event Context", part of which included a response to J.L. Austin and concerned, indeed, questions about the conditions of communication. John Searle's response to this piece suggested a series of failures on Derrida's part to understand J.L. Austin and, in return, in Limited Inc Derrida demonstrates in serious detail all the ways in which his original article had been misrepresented by Searle. This dispute is one of the sources of Searle's more emphatic commitment to a "clarity" that he had apparently defended in a dispute in which he failed to show the standards of clarity that he was the the titular defender of.

Calls for clarity in philosophy are in themselves obscure since underneath them is a view of what such clarity has to consist in. It must involve the ability to translate thought into a general common medium whose own conditions of possibility are never made transparent. There is evaluation here that does not speak its own name and which can be traced back, in Anglo-Saxon countries, to an implicit approval of a standard of "common sense" that has its own institutional and historical conditions, conditions that the advocates of such a standard of intelligibility have no interest in making apparent. Only under the condition that such conditions can themselves be made stakes of a debate would be it possible to address the question of whether some philosophers are, or are not, more "obscure" than others.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Venezuela and "Media Crimes"

The government of Venezuela has decided to increase regulation of the media with the proposal of a new law that aims to define "media crimes". This proposed law was presented to the national assembly by Attorney General Luis Ortega Diaz on 30th July and is intended to strengthen the 2004 law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. It comes amid a tightening of control on the expression of views deemed problematic by the government as, on 1st August, 34 radio and TV stations had licenses withdrawn for a series of apparently "administrative" measures that, whilst legislatively distinct from the proposed law, further ensured a narrowing of public debate in the country.

A further measure that has been imposed on media for some years is the fact that they have to broadcast entire speeches by the President. These speeches, termed "cadenas" are speeches of indeterminate length that all terrestial channels have to broadcast simultaneously and which cable TV channels are only exempt from if they can prove that 70% of their production is of foreign origin. In 2009 thus far 75 live speeches have been broadcast this way including one that lasted 7 hours and 34 minutes.

The proposed new law will increase the penalties that were initially imposed under the 2004 law. Under the law as it stands the "offenses" are punished by fines whilst the new law will increase the punishments to penal terms, ranging from six months to 4 years. The "crimes" include broadcasting "false", "manipulated" or "distorted" reports, reports that "harm the interests of the state", attack "public decency" or undermine "mental health". In addition it will be criminal to refuse to reveal sources of information, thus undermining the journalistic use of sources. Human Rights Watch has termed the new law "the most comprehensive assault on free speech in Venezuela" since the current President came to power. Despite this there have been some defenders of the law, such as VHeadline who echo the claims of the Attorney General that the law does not harm free speech despite giving no definition for actions that would harm the "mental health" of the country, damage "public morale" or harm "social peace".

The attack on the media has been furthered recently by statements from the President that users of Twitter are "traitors" after a Twitter campaign against the proposed law. There are also suggestions that all Internet be controlled by the state telecom network. Since a judgment of the Supreme Tribunal in 2000 ruled that NGOs with non-Venezuelan leaders or foreign government funding are not part of "civil society" and can bring no legal actions it is perhaps not surprising that Twitter and the Internet might well also be targets for suspicion.

The general notion of "media crimes" and the accusations against the media belong with the French Revolution's Crime of Suspects that claimed that being suspected was equivalent to being guilty and show that there is no effective Rule of Law in Venezuela (something further clear from the exorbitantly high murder rate in the country). The supporters of the supposedly "Bolivarian revolution" choose to be blind to the fact that control over free speech, blocking of independent media outlets and definition of opponents as people who damage the "mental health" of the nation, are indicative of a regime that is intrinsically authoritarian in nature. Without the "oxygen of publicity" there can be no basis for checking government action and without this no possible "civil society". Defense of the preconditions of such civil society should be the minimum for anyone who claims concern with liberty or lawful government.