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Some people seem to think that it is fundamentally impossible to understand

Some people seem to think that it is fundamentally impossible to understand another culture. For example, they say that no matter how we think about and conceptualize Chinese thought and philosophy, we will always be interpreting it as though it were Western, and that we will therefore never understand it. Can this really be true?

You do touch on a very important issue here which occurs to those of us who work in the philosophy of cultures that are not directly our own. How much do we miss since we are not the original audience, as it were, of the philosophers from that culture? On the other hand, it also seems to me that we are very far from the original audience that Plato and Aristotle had in mind, yet many of us think we can get some grasp of Greek philosophy. How far is philosophy all the same and how far is it culturally specific? It is remarkable how similar ideas crop up irrespective of culture, so most philosophers are interested in similar issues to do with truth, value, knowledge and so on, although it is certainly true that different cultures emphasize different issues in different ways.

There was a debate on this topic over a thousand years ago in the court at Baghdad. One philosopher argued that Greek philosophy was irrelevant to Muslims since it is based on Greek culture, and that has nothing to do with Islam. His opponent suggested on the contrary that philosophy deals in entirely general and abstract ideas which have nothing culturally specific about them, so Greek thought, translated into Arabic (his job) was perfectly useful. We are still having the debate today.

One thing that can be said about the issue, I think, is that anyone who works in the philosophy of a culture not his or her own should be aware of the danger of just assuming that if an idea in that culture looks like an idea in one's own, then it is. Often it is not.

If we were able to create a computer that functions exactly like a human brain,

If we were able to create a computer that functions exactly like a human brain, when does this "artificial" intelligence stop being artificial? I suppose what I'm trying to say is that if this computer could truly learn, and be programmed in such a way as to develop emotions just as humans do, when does it become real? When is it not right to just plug it out and "kill" it? Many people would, I'm assuming, argue that a computer isn't living, or isn't biological. (As posed in an earlier answer, that's not particularly valid; we all weed our gardens.) It comes down to emotion as far as I'm concerned. I'm finding this question particularly difficult to phrase, and the more I type the more I think that the question is going to come across as all over the place, so I'm going to stop at that and hope for the best! If there is no response I will try again another time.

And a good place to continue (after reading Turing 1950) might be with some of the readings that I have listed on my Philosophy of Computer Science course webpages at: Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence and at Computer Ethics, especially: LaChat, Michael R. (1986), "Artificial Intelligence and Ethics: An Exercise in the Moral Imagination", AI Magazine 7(2): 70-79

It happens repeatedly to me that when I read a poem, I may come across a feeling

It happens repeatedly to me that when I read a poem, I may come across a feeling that the poem has actually reflected some thoughts of mine that had been floating in my mind but hadn't actually been able to express it in terms of words. Does this phenomenon pave any grounds for the argument that we may not actually need words in order to think? Would be grateful for an answer. Thanks. óAli

Great question. Some philospohers have been quite firm that thought cannot exist without language, but this has always struck me as quite implausable. One problem is that it is hard to know how one might even begin to learn a language unless you had thoughts. But the case you raise is another reason to be suspicious of such a linguistic account of thought. There might be a middle position, however, in which one recognizes that in expressing thoughts in language we can achieve greater clarity; a poem may help crystalize in sharper terms what had, until you read the poem, only been vague hunches. Your language even suggests this, for the poem seems to be something more concrete than "thoughts ...that had been floating in" your mind. Good wishes! CT

Are there "authentic" desires that lie beneath socially formed desires? For

Are there "authentic" desires that lie beneath socially formed desires? For example, two hundred years ago, most women probably did not want to live like today's women do. This is often assumed to be a product of cultural indoctrination; clearly, the average woman's opinions today are vastly different. Yet how are the opinions of today's women more authentic? How can we differentiate authentic from indoctrinated preferences?

Not just "indoctrinated" -- many these days will argue that much about our cognitive/mental lives is shaped by evolution, and surely "desires" would be prime candidates for such. If (say) having a certain set of desires or certain modes of desiring is ultimately "selected for" by evolution, would that make them more or less "authentic"? In fact presumably we can always, in principle, trace a causal chain explaining the origin either of individual desires or dispositions towards desiring -- so I'd guess that if you want to construct anything like a notion of "authentic" desires you'll have to decide whether simply being caused removes authenticity; or if not, which sorts of causes are consistent with being authentic and which not. (Actually a similar issue arises in free will discussions, where the concern is whether the fact that many/most/all of our thoughts and/or choices are caused is consistent with their remaining 'free' ....)

hope that's useful.


People often talk as though their thoughts were a constant stream of an inner

People often talk as though their thoughts were a constant stream of an inner voice speaking aloud in their heads. I find this strange, because unless I am rehearsing what I want to say or write, or am trying to imagine a debate between two or more people, there aren't ever any voices in my head. When I think about things, the thoughts aren't verbal; they're just there, both like weighted, kinetic mechanisms and like colors at once. I don't think: "Today I have to feed the cat, read Wittgenstein and do the dishes, and I would like to find the time to watch a movie with my girlfriend." That would be bizarre. The thoughts are just there, maybe flashes of cats and the word "Wittgenstein" and some vague notions of duty and cleaning and my girlfriend's name. I know them, without hearing them or seeing them written. So why do people talk as though there were a voice in their heads? I thought only schizophrenics heard voices.

well, SOME thoughts are 'inner monologues," it seems; especially the most articulated, clearest thoughts we have; so it seems reasonable to treat that as a significant category of "thoughts". Or at least they SEEM to be articulated verbally, even if not out loud; your point that they are not literally 'heard' is a very good one, but the similarity to what is or can be heard is striking enough that it doesn't seem misplaced to imagine these thoughts quite literally expressed verbally, even if silently. But just the same you are surely right that not ALL 'thought' can fit this model (if any at all can) -- so to me a related question might be why it is, exactly, that some thinking seems so closely affiliated with language while other thinking does not ....

Julian Jaynes has a great book from the 1970s: "Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" in which he suggests (amongst other things) that schizophrenia results in people being unable to distinguish their inner monologue from 'others' voices ... and he thinks the essence of subjective consciousness involves precisely the ability to make that distinction ... check it out, it's a fascinating read!


People who commit a sadistic crime are often said to lack empathy. But don't

People who commit a sadistic crime are often said to lack empathy. But don't they have to be able to understand the pain that they are inflicting in order to derive pleasure from that pain and isn't that ability empathy?

Perhaps the problem lies in our current use of the term 'empathy' --which suggests not just understanding for caring. On that definition, I am not empathetic with you if I understand your suffering but I care nothing for your recovery or health. But if by 'empathy' and 'sympathy' too we just mean 'feeling with' then a sado-masochist might be said to be very empathetic and sympathetic over his victims.

On a related matter, there is some current debate over the ethical status of understanding. If we say we understand why a sadistic crime was committed, have we in some way granted that the crime "made sense" or was in some way excusable under the circumstances? I believe Martha Nuusbaum has addressed this concern recently. One way this might connect with your original question is that we might ask ourselves whether the sadistic criminal really understands (understands fully) what he is doing? Yes, he (or she) must understand that pain is being inflicted, but can the criminal still do the act if he or she fully understood all the implications of the action, how everyone is affected, and so on? This is a question that exercised Plato and Aristotle who, for slightly different reasons, thought that doing evil (or wrong-doing) involved some kind of ignorance or failure to fully understand the nature of one's action. I leave you with that proposal which is still debated today! I am inclined to go with Plato on this one, but the issue remains a live one for me and for many others. Good wishes! CT

Are dreams experiences that occur during sleep? Or are they made-up memories

Are dreams experiences that occur during sleep? Or are they made-up memories that only occur upon waking? How could one tell either way?

Good question, one that has been debated by philosophers (perhaps even psychologists?), and one that is answered nicely in Owen Flanagan's Dreaming Souls. You can get a glimpse of the problem on p. 19 found here but he gives the full answer later in the book (e.g., pp. 174-5). Basically, this question offers a nice case where we have to go beyond the evidence offered by our first-person experiences. We can't be sure, upon waking up, whether we had a dream a while ago during sleep or whether our minds are very quickly making up false memories that we experience as dreams. (We also can't be sure from our experiences how long our dreams last--Kant and others have thought they occur 'in a flash'. And we can't be sure whether our reports of our dreams accurately convey what we actually dreamed, assuming the dream experiences occurred during sleep.)

If one assumes that our experiences are the only evidence relevant to answering such questions, then one may not be able to answer them. But here we should "go abductive." We should consider which is the best theory in terms of all the relevant evidence--the theory that is most consistent with all the evidence, explains more of it, predicts new discoveries, etc. Here are some reasons to think that the best theory in this case is the one that says we have dream experiences during sleep (T1) rather than constructing dreams upon awakening (T2):

  • There is a strong correlation between REM (rapid eye movement) during sleep and dream reports: when you wake someone up during REM they often report dreaming and when you wake them up when not in REM, they typically do not report dreaming. T1 predicts that there will be such differences, while T2 has a harder time explaining it (note: you can make T2 fit the evidence but it gets more ad hoc).
  • Length of time in REM sleep correlates roughly with reported experience of length of dream. Again, evidence for T1 over T2.
  • The brain changes in regular ways during times that correlate with both REM and reports of dreams upon being awoken. And some of these changes suggest experiences consistent with the contents of dreams (e.g., visual cortex is active and we report visual experiences in dreams, etc.).

And so on. I hope this helps. One lesson, I think, is that the best way to approach some philosophical questions, including (especially?) ones about our minds, is to gather evidence from every source we can and come up with the explanation that best fits that evidence. Of course, it's a philosophical question which evidence is relevant and what counts as best fit!

Is it valid to talk about ethnic groups as having a distinctive psychological

Is it valid to talk about ethnic groups as having a distinctive psychological make-up? Can we speak of a "European psychology", an "Arab psychology", "Chinese psychology", etc?

There are broad differences between ethnic and cultural groups that have to do with the ways in which people are socialized into those groups. But to understand these artifacts of culture as differences in psychology seems to me to be a mistake. Anyone who has had any kind of rich interaction with different members of such groups will know well just how hugely varied people are. But enculturation does have effects, of course.

Have Freud's ideas about the subconscious been tested empirically? Is there a

Have Freud's ideas about the subconscious been tested empirically? Is there a way to test for the existence of an Oedipal Complex? If so, have the results strengthened or weakened the Freudian/Marxist critique of society made by the Frankfurt School?

I think that there is both considerable clinical evidence--that is, evidence from psychoanalytic sessions--and evidence from everyday life in support of the postulation of unconscious mental states in order to explain certain behavior, including slips of the tongue, forgettings, etc. There are, however, certain philosophers--in particular, Adolf Grünbaum--who do not recognize what I have called 'clinical evidence' as evidence, and who have argued that there is no empirical basis for psychoanalysis. (There have been a number of rejoinders to Grünbaum, including a paper by David Sachs originally published in The Philosophical Review, and an essay by Thomas Nagel in The New York Review of Books. Partisans of Grünbaum's position, however, have found those rejoinders completely unconvincing. Janet Malcolm's Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession is a very interesting treatment of psychoanalysis in general, and also of how one might go about finding evidence for certain psychoanalytic claims, as well as an absolutely marvelous read.)

The question of whether there is evidence for an Oedipus Complex is a bit more vexed. One reason that I myself find it vexed, is because the postulation of an Oedipus Complex is part of what might be called 'metapsychology', as opposed to 'psychology' proper, and hence is, to my mind, more of a theoretical reflection on clinical evidence--that is, it arises from Freud's reflection on his own clinical experience, as documented in, among other things, certain of his case histories--and therefore doesn't have quite the same status as the postulation of unconscious mental states. Nevertheless, it is in the clinic, that is, in the course of psychoanalysis or even psychoanalytic psychotherapy, that the evidence for the Oedipal Complex will emerge, ad so it will stand or fall on that evidence.

It's not, however, clear to me, that the status of the Oedipal Complex bears significantly on the basis of the Frankfurt School approach to society, which--although I may be mistaken here, since it's been some time since I read Dialectic of Enlightenment does not seem to me to rest on an appeal to the Oedipal Complex.

What the role does cannabis (or any other mind-altering substances) play in the

What the role does cannabis (or any other mind-altering substances) play in the world of philosophy?

Well, there's mind-altering and mind-altering! Dope that makes you dopey might give you time out from the nagging concerns of philosophy, but isn't likely to play a role in producing serious thought. Wine or beer seems different. The glass or two in the pub after the seminar do often lubricate good philosophy, and the convivial arguments in the conference bar certainly play their part in world of philosophy.

As to philosophizing about mind-altering stuffs, there's of course a good amount of discussion on the ethics and politics of legalizing this or banning that. But Charles Taliaferro is right that, when it comes to writing about our experience of the stuff itself (as opposed to ethical and legal issues about it), it is wine that traditionally gets the attention. That's not too surprising, perhaps, when we recall that at least some it is produced, not just to be glugged down, and certainly not just to make you intoxicated, but to be an object of aesthetic attention and reflection, as a continuing part of a tradition in human life of considerable complexity. There is room then, as with other such aspects of human life, for philosophizing about wine and our experiences of it -- as in Barry Smith's recent edited collection of essays Questions of Taste which is indeed subtitled The Philosophy of Wine.