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Cafe-philo: Education, a remedy for violence ? 2-1-2013

by Ted Welch Tue Jan 8th, 2013 at 03:39:32 PM EST

Cafe-philo in English, with a French flavour.


The Jan 2nd 2013 meeting of the cafe-philo in English was packed; perhaps people had resolved to be more philosophical in the new year.

On the positive side this cafe-philo does encourage an interest in philosophical issues and provides a platform for the expression of opinion about general ideas by a variety of individuals. However the democratic format does tend to lead to the selection of very general issues which can be expressed in a single short sentence, in this case: "Can education remedy/fight (!) violence?" Well, yes and no; some kinds of education can help reduce some kinds and levels of violence, but also, rather obviously, some forms of education (e.g. technical, how to create an atomic bomb) can lead to enormously increased violence. The proposer himself cited Spartan education for the production of warriors and someone else claimed that many SS officers were PhDs.


A little dialogue is a philosophical thing

Socrates considered his engagement in philosophical dialogue as his life's mission, and this is why Plato chose the dialogue form for his philosophy and kept writing "Socratic dialogues" (Σωκρατικοὶ λόγοι) until late in his career."



Another problem is that there is not a lot of actual discussion. The person who proposed the topic also referred to one of Plato's dialogues: Gorgias. But Plato's classic philosophical works are typified by complex discussion between a few people, in which the complexity of the issues is gradually unfolded by Socrates' specific questions and his interlocutors' attempts to refine their answers. In marked contrast, the cafe-philo tends to be a series of barely related monologues, sometimes expressing the speakers' customary general views loosely related to the topic.  

In this case an early response argued for the positive side of violence, saying that it was part of our nature and that it was present even in the creation of art. However, to remedy or fight something is not necessarily to totally eradicate even the potential for it. Nor do I think that to put paint on canvas is necessarily violent. Even carving such a monument to triumphant violence as Michelangelo's David is not in itself a result of violence, but rather of creative transformation of inert matter. Later another person supported a more positive view of violence; maybe it was just a coincidence that they were both American - and rather unfortunate that the recent killings in a school in the US by a well-educated young man were given only a passing mention.

 However, rather than discuss the specific points raised, we moved on to other people's views and there was only one reference back much later on; the proposer of the topic disagreeing  about art involving violence.

Spiritual violence

Someone argued that we must include a spiritual dimension in education - presumably not the spirit of ruthless courage displayed by the Spartans, but a nice, New-Age kind of non-violent spirituality.

Another contrast with pacifist spirituality is that of "the spirit of the samurai", as exemplified in "Chushingura" (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers), the true story of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) who killed the man they held responsible for their lord's death, who had been ordered to commit suicide ("seppuku") for an attack on a senior official. For this, they in turn were ordered to commit suicide :

"For three centuries since, the popularity of Chushingura  has never waned."

In fact there was a new film version in 2012, with Keanu Reeves - in 3D !:


Right after the incident, Tsuchiya, Kira's neighbor, testified to shogunate officials that he had been impressed by the ronin, whom he described as orderly and perfectly organized.

There is, however, another admirable aspect of the behavior of the Ako ronin: They showed isagiyosa, which can be interpreted as "grace with pride." The attack was carefully planned, certainly no spur-of-the-moment event, and the ronin all knew they faced death. When their time to die did come, they did so gracefully with pride -- as samurai."


English with a French flavour

While the cafe-philo is in English, I was struck (excuse the violent metaphor) by how the French context was reflected in some general tendencies.

The definition delusion deconstructed


There is a preoccupation with definitions in French culture; I've noticed that in TV discussions, French people will often raise a question about the topic, then offer a definition, e.g.: "Democracy, what is democracy?" and then they proceed to give some sort of definition, as if THEY are getting to the root of the problem, which has eluded the other, definition-free, interlocutors. This might be valuable in law, but in British law some things are left open to interpretation given the circumstances. Thus, in defending oneself, one can use "reasonable force" - but what would count as "reasonable" is left open to the judge and jury to decide. Wittgenstein argued that the preoccupation with definitions is misleading in philosophy:

Finally, Wittgenstein's choice of `game' is based on the over-all analogy between language and game, assuming that we have a clearer perception of what games are. Still, just as we cannot give a final, essential definition of `game', so we cannot find "what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language" (PI 65).

It is here that Wittgenstein's rejection of general explanations, and definitions based on sufficient and necessary conditions, is best pronounced. Instead of these symptoms of the philosopher's "craving for generality", he points to `family resemblance' as the more suitable analogy for the means of connecting particular uses of the same word. There is no reason to look, as we have done traditionally--and dogmatically--for one, essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word's uses through "a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing" (PI 66). Family resemblance also serves to exhibit the lack of boundaries and the distance from exactness that characterize different uses of the same concept."


We can all use the words "education" and "violence" as speakers of English, without being able or needing to give precise definitions to these rather general and complex concepts. When some people did offer definitions they were rather obviously inadequate; thus someone suggested that we define "violence" as a lack of recognition of other people. While that might be one cause of some violence, it clearly won't do as a general definition of "violence".


Misguided respect for Freud in France

Something else rather typical of a French context, is the frequent reference to Freud as an respected authority, this is despite the many well-documented critiques of Freud and recently one by Michel Onfray, a French philosopher: "Twilight of an Idol.". As I said in the meeting, the latter has sold very well in France, but obviously still needs to be known more widely for it clearly reveals that Freud was a liar more concerned with inflating his own reputation than in searching for the truth. When the truth was likely to damage his reputation he destroyed the evidence, for example the letters of his friend Fliess to Freud. He also tried to obtain to destroy his own letters to Fliess, but they survived and provide some damning evidence against Freud.

Predictably there was a furious reaction from the powerful pro-Freud group in France and their media friends, cf:

Members of the still powerful corporation guild of psychoanalysts in France have come out in full force to launch concerted attacks against Michel Onfray. Some members of this corporation have accused this brilliant subversive philosopher to be in cahoots with "neoliberalism" or "savage capitalism" of the era globalization. A preposterous accusation (Onfray is very left-wing).
BHL started his attacks against Michel Onfray in the media way before he read even one single sentence of the book. But Onfray counterattacked by brushing aside baseless attacks not grounded in the actual reading of the book and mocked in the media this novel method of "reading" without actually reading--thus refreshing the memory of the literary public about the "botulism" debacle. (BHL fell for a hoax about a supposed philosopher called Botul)."


See my discussion:



Pinker's pro-US propaganda

There was also reference to Steven Pinker's recent book: "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". The person who'd proposed the topic welcomed this reference to a work containing some statistical evidence. However Pinker's book is a thinly disguised defense of the US's post-war imperialism (a word which, significantly, doesn't occur in the book's index). There is an excellent and devastating critical review by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson:

It is amusing to see how eagerly the establishment media have welcomed Steven Pinker's 2011 tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,[1] which explains not only that "violence has been in decline for long stretches of time," but that "we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species' existence."[2] 

...Whereas in Pinker’s view there has been a "Long Peace" since the end of the Second World War,[7]  in the real world there has been a series of long and devastating U.S. wars: in the Koreas (1950-1953), Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (1954-1975), Iraq (1990-), Afghanistan (2001- or, arguably, 1979-), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1996-), with the heavy direct involvement of U.S. clients from Rwanda (Paul Kagame) and Uganda (Yoweri Museveni) in large-scale Congo killings; and Israel's outbursts in Lebanon (1982 and 2006), to name a few.  There were also very deadly wars in Iran, invaded by Saddam Hussein's Iraq (1980-1988), with Western encouragement and support.  And with the stimulus-excuse of 9/11, the U.S. political and "defense" establishment was able to declare a global "War on Terror," open-ended and still ongoing, to assure that the "Long Peace" would not be interrupted by a conflict that met the Pinkerian standards for a real war."

http://www.zcommunications.org/reality-denial-steven-pinkers-apologetics-for-western-imperial-volenc e-by-edward-s-herman-and-david-peterson-1

Unfortunately this very well-researched review has probably been seen by far fewer people than the positive reviews in mainstream media such as the New York Times. Like Freud (at least in France), Pinker is widely respected, despite the fact that in both cases they are demonstrably wrong in very important respects. This reminds me of a motto for journalists:

"Even if your mother says she loves you - check it out."

Or, as Nietzsche said:

Conviction is an objection, a question mark, a défi ["challenge"] (--very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions--? Rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions! ! !"

Notebooks (Nachlass) Spring 1888 14 [159]

While I did more or less remember this,  I did check it out - (it is the last but one quotation here):


Sartre (who used to frequent Cafe Flore) radically revised his early existentialist conviction about freedom, concluding that he had in fact been expressing bourgeois ideology. In his later work he attempted to develop a more marxist approach. While Marx had noted the importance of human agency, he understood its limitations: "Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own making." A waiter's career choice might have been very limited.


Unfortunately the cafe-philo format does tend to favour the expression of people's convictions and not enough dialogue challenging such convictions. But it is up to us, if we're really philosophically inclined, to continue the dialogue after the event, as a few of us did in a nearby restaurant, and as I am doing in contributing this and as anybody reading this is invited to do by commenting.  


Made me think of this, via Krugman/DeLong
[...] much of the discipline is not a branch of science or even of dialectic, but merely of rhetoric [...]

(that was about economics, of course, but partially the mind set may be the same.)

We've forgotten about dialectic in this day and age.
"Debate" today means "getting the other guy to shut up".

sapere aude

by Number 6 on Wed Jan 9th, 2013 at 10:10:14 AM EST
Or screaming in a person's ear until the words come out of their mouth.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Wed Jan 9th, 2013 at 10:51:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My thanks to those who have recommended this - and I suppose I should take the relative absence of comments as tacit agreement about my views on the various issues raised. Maybe you just liked the photos and captions.

It's a bit ironic that the first comment is about the lack of dialectic today. Maybe it was too long, covered too many issues, or did you take note of Nietzsche's comment on convictions (at the end) and decide to give it all more thought before stating your own ? :-)  

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Jan 10th, 2013 at 01:40:12 PM EST
Effectively, you've nailed it in my case. I very much like the diary and it did conjure up memories of the sixties and seventies in Paris- which i felt unnecessary to burden ET with. Thanks for inducing a pleasant reflective mood.

I do agree with you on your description of the monologues touted as debate. There is a quote from Nietzsche that is appropriate:

Opinions and fish.-- Possessing opinions is like possessing fish, assuming one has a fishpond. One has to go fishing and needs some luck--then one has one's own fish, one's own opinions. I am speaking of live opinions, of live fish. Others are satisfied if they own a cabinet of fossils--and in their heads, "convictions."

or again:

Every one who wishes to display his wit thereby proclaims that he has also a plentiful lack of wit. That vice which clever Frenchmen have of adding a touch of dédain to their best ideas arises from a desire to be considered richer than they really are. They wish to be carelessly generous, as if weary of continual spending from overfull treasuries.

I realize of course the gathering was English playing mock-French.

After quotes like that in the spirit of your diary, one prefers to curb one's witty fossils, even if provoked then in the comments by a call to dialectics. I am partial to mere rhetoric and find dialectics an intellectual sham, if not imposture.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Thu Jan 10th, 2013 at 04:53:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"I realize of course the gathering was English playing mock-French."

Not really, there was me, the co-chairman and the guy in the photo talking, as he did, about fair play. The others were American, quite a few French (including the guy who proposed the topic) and various other nationalities.

"I am partial to mere rhetoric and find dialectics an intellectual sham, if not imposture."

Well, it's just a tool, a mode of interacting, and can be used in various ways without necessarily being "intellectual sham". At its best it does involve serious engagement with the argument of the other, the attempt to clarify the issues (without resorting to definitions) and actually learning from the experience.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Jan 10th, 2013 at 06:07:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I see that as a good description of a dialogue. In reference to the Wiki article linked to above on dialectics there is a presumption of truth as the objective or of bettering the other through the dialogue. A good discussion or dialogue may indeed be a mutually satisfying learning process without being co-opted or defined as dialectics. It is the notion that dialectics is something more than a dialogue that is questionable, all the more so as dialectics uses rhetorical devices, as all meaningful communication does, while deploring rhetoric. A dialogue is empathetic in nature and has no pretention of higher order truth.

(Socratic dialectics seem more an interrogation with the victim on the hot seat. Once the victim is thoroughly confused by Socratic rhetorical ploys, he sees the light and embraces the truth.)

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Thu Jan 10th, 2013 at 07:40:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]

You're a bit selective regarding the wiki article on dialectic, which has some quite positive things to say:

The dialectical method is discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned arguments.[1] The term dialectics is not synonymous with the term debate. Debaters are committed to their points of view and mean to win the debate by a combination of persuading the opponent; proving their argument correct; or proving the opponent's argument incorrect. The winner of the debate is determined by either a judge, jury, or by group consensus. The term dialectics is also not synonymous with the term rhetoric, a method or art of discourse that seeks to persuade, inform, or motivate an audience.[2] Concepts, like "logos" or rational appeal, "pathos" or emotional appeal, and "ethos" or ethical appeal, are intentionally used by rhetoricians to persuade an audience.
The purpose of the dialectic method of reasoning is resolution of disagreement through rational discussion, and, ultimately, the search for truth.
Another way to understand dialectics is to view it as a method of thinking to overcome formal dualism and monistic reductionism.[62] For example, formal dualism regards the opposites as mutually exclusive entities, whilst monism finds each to be an epiphenomenon of the other. Dialectical thinking rejects both views. The dialectical method requires focus on both at the same time. It looks for a transcendence of the opposites entailing a leap of the imagination to a higher level, which (1) provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or (2) helps elucidate a real but previously veiled integral relationship between apparent opposites that have been kept apart and regarded as distinct. For example, the superposition principle of quantum physics can be explained using the dialectical method of thinking--likewise the example below from dialectical biology. Such examples showing the relationship of the dialectic method of thinking to the scientific method to a large part negates the criticism of Popper (see text below) that the two are mutually exclusive.


Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 06:44:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In a discussion one selects a notion to argue. The other, often referred to as the "ideal listener", may just as well choose another "talking point" to emphasize. Defining dialectics in positive ways is fine with me. However, I am attacking the term and the "hénourme!" (a Sartrian rhetorical tic) number of qualifications it has acquired, especially in the past two centuries. It appears that every wanker who fancies himself a philosopher has to slap out a new brand of dialectics.

The argument against this Platonic pretence is not new. Popper wrote:

Finally, in forming our judgements on Plato's procedure, we must not forget that Plato likes to argue against rhetoric and sophistry, and indeed he is the man who by his attacks on the "Sophists" created the bad associations connected with that word. I believe that we therefore have every reason to censor him when he himself makes use of rhetoric and sophistry in place of argument.

Essentially Plato is in bad faith. Nor is his chatter about truth all that convincing as it is only for the rare few, invariably those in power:

Socrates: I know how to produce one witness to the truth of what I say, the man with whom I'm debating, but the others I ignore. I know how to secure one man's vote, but with the many I will not even enter into discussion.
(Quoted in Brian Vickers, In Defense of Rhetoric)

For the masses there's propaganda, as Plato eloquently argues.

The term does not carry much clout with modern works on argumentation. Stephen Toulmin, who is quoted in the Wiki article, never uses the term in his The Uses of Argument. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca in The New Rhetoric mention it only en passant: In real life dialectics just doesn't happen and is practically indistinguishable from debate. Acknowledged modern authorities on critical reasoning, rhetoric and argumentation, such as Douglas Walton and Christopher Tindale, rarely discuss or ever use the term.

What use is the term with its dangerous Platonic pretensions? I suppose philosophers can play with it all they want. After all, they needn't really concern themselves with messy reality that fetters the masses, much to Nietzsche's consternation.


by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 07:47:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it did conjure up memories of the sixties and seventies in Paris- which i felt unnecessary to burden ET with

Bastard. Cough some up. Do we need to beg?

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 08:08:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"Can education remedy/fight violence?"

isn't a philosophical question.  It states a research area in the fields of Sociology, Social Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, and Anthropology.  The philosophical question - riffing off of Daniel Robinson - would be, e.g., "What Model is most productive when analyzing the relation of education and the level(s) of violence."

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Jan 12th, 2013 at 12:43:06 PM EST

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