50,000 hits!


Although this website is no longer regularly maintained, it continues to draw traffic.  By the time you read this, this site will have reached 50,000 hits.

I hope you’re finding the site useful!  I welcome feedback and questions.  My homepage is now at http://flavors.me/philosopher1978.



Here’s an interesting thought experiment from TPM. It’s essentially a variation on Philipa Foot’s well-known ‘trolley experiment’. Give it a go and see how consistent your morals are…

Should you kill the fat man?

Link: Kant


Here’s a useful link to information about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, or transcendental idealism.


Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as audiobook

Who is the greatest philosopher of all time? This is not a question to which we are likely to find a staightforward answer, but it remains an important one.

The BBC ran a vote in 2005, and Karl Marx came out as the clear winner. But the list itself provdes a good starting point for learning about some of the most important philosophers. The top twenty are Aquinas, Aristotle, Descartes, Epicurus, Heidegger, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, Plato, Popper, Russell, Sartre, Schopenhauer, Socrates, Spinoza and Wittgenstein. At this retrospective webpage you can read more about each of them and list to an audio track where a modern thinker champions each of them. There are also useful links to find out more.

I’d suggest that there are two things you might want to think about here. Firstly, what does it mean for a philosopher to be ‘great’? Is it a question of the influence they have had, or how successful their life was, or how ‘right’ they were, perhaps? Secondly… why is it that all of these candidates are men? Don’t women make good philosophers?



Think you’re open-minded? This interesting discussion of open-mindedness, the burden of proof and supernatural beliefs might interest you…

This review essay of two recent books provides a useful introduction to some of the philosophical problems surrounding the compatibility of religion and science.  Prof. Coyne thinks that religion and science can never really be made compatible – but is this right?  How might one form an ‘indirect’ response to this kind of  view?

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.

Prof. Emily Jackson of the London School of Economics offers a perspective on euthanasia legislation in the UK.

Hello All

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to today’s class – I thinnk Tooley’s paper is a provocative piece and so makes for a good discussion.  Those of you who gave Tooly a rough ride in class had some interesting ideas that are well worth pursuing…you might be on to something…

Next week is a reading week (in the philosophy department only) so on the back of today’s class here’s something to get your teeth into.

Is Tooley Playing with Words? The Dubious “Capability” Defence

Summary of the problem:

(1) Tooley argues against the potentiality thesis ( i.e. against the idea that as a ‘potential’ person the fetus has a right to life)

(2) Given that the right to life for Tooley rests on personhood, and that personhood amounts to having a conception of oneself as a continuing existing subject, Tooly faces a problem: what about people who are temporarily unconscious?

(3) In order to hold on to the idea that individuals in that condition still have personhood in the way in which he describes it – and therefore a right to life – Tooley invokes his “capability defence”.

(4)The worry is that ‘capability’ sounds very much like ‘potentiality’ and if the former protects the person in the coma, why doesn’t the latter protect the fetus?

(5) Behind this worry is the suspicion that Tooley is just playing with words and that ‘capability’ and ‘potentiality’ are basically doing the same work – he’s just shuffled the same deck of cards. 

(6) If (5) is right, then there are problems for either (1) or (3)


The Challenge for PY111 Students

(a) One of the skills of doing philosophy is close textual reading. So the first thing to ask yourself is: Have I  (Steve) given a fair summary of Tooley’s position? I may have intentionally simplified his position or missed out crucial aspects of the argument not only to bolster the case (you will be surprised how often this happens in academic debates) but to see if you are really reading.

(b) If you think there is a problem for Tooley, then lay out the charge in all its devastating detail (or as I heard someone once say – “release the hounds!”. Actually I don’t recommend going in for a vicious mauling – not very charitable – but certainly make him uncomfortable)

(c) Can anyone come to Tooley’s defence or vindicate his position and thereby put an end to this unjust presentation of his position?

See Tooly ‘Abortion and Infanticide’. Its on the CMR (pp 44-49 are where the crux of the issue lies)

Enjoy reading week – Steve

UK teenager Hannah Jones has been receiving intensive medical treatment since the age of 4, when she was diagnosed with lukemia.  After six operations in the last two years, her heart still only works at 10% of normal capacity. She had now taken the decision to end her treatment, which she recently went to court to stop. This is an example of passive euthanasia.

You can read about Hannah’s case here, here, and here.

It’s natural to have sympathy for Hannah.  But is the decision right?  Is a 13-year old really able to exercise their autonomy?  Child protection officers filed a court action against her parents on the basis that they were believed to be the ones ‘preventing’ her treatment from continuing. Hannah thinks that she knows what’s best for her, but isn’t that the decision we trust doctors to make for us? Certainly judges will tend to value the perspective of a medical specialist over that of a patient, especially a child.

Which is not to say that all experts necessarily disagree with patients. John Harris, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester writes, “It is not people who are competent, it is decisions that are competent. There is no such thing as being existentially competent. Once you can have decision-making capacity over anything, the competence is related to the decision… Most people would conclude, as I would, that it is perfectly rational and consistent with her best interests to want to die peacefully at home.”

At what age should one be allowed to choose whether to live or die?  Is this kind of thinking ever justified, or do we all have a moral obligation to prolong life? From a consequentialist perspective, is Hannah better off now that she has been left to die?

More to the point, what is the importance of being “rational and consistent”?  Is it important?

While traditional moral arguments about euthanasia tend to focus on cases where the condition of the individual is terminal, the recent case of a 23 year old British man commiting suicide in a Swiss euthanasia clinic, after being left paralysed from the neck down from a sporting injury, raises a number of moral and legal questions. Is there any moral difference between euthanasia for the terminally ill and those with non-terminal conditions?  With ‘Dignitas’, the centre for assisted dying in Zurich, reporting 100 Britons having travelled there to make use of the Swiss laws, the legal question of what constitutes “assistance” in such cases is also of significance. Should friends and family who accompany those travelling to Switzerland for the purposes of commiting suicide be seen as having ‘assisted’ in that suicide and therefore breaking UK law? Or do you you agree with the group ‘Dignity and Dying’ which campaigns for a law to allow terminally ill and mentally competent patients to choose assisted death in the UK?

How would Hume respond? And what would Kant have to say about the implied relationship between ‘dignity’ and these various forms of euthanasia (as suggested in the names of the two associations mentioned)?

Here is the related article http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/oct/17/law-switzerland

British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock has weighed into the current debate on euthanasia inspired by the death of Daniel James with this piece at Guardian Unlimited.  She argues that we must respect the autonomous wishes of others and not place our judgements of the value of another’s life above their own.  The article has provoked extensive and lively debate in the comments section – which reflects just how contentious the issue is.

Warnock has previously argued (in an article for the Telegraph) that dementia sufferers should be euthanised because of the strain that they put on those who care for them.  She writes:

“If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service. I’m absolutely, fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die, but I feel there’s a wider argument that if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they’re a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.”

Length: 1 – 1, 500 words

Questions (answer one)

1. Is it morally wrong to commit suicide? Justify your answer

2. Which form of euthanasia, if any, is defensible in principle?

Good luck and remember to upload your essay too!

Next Year


Steve Gormley has kindly agreed to keep this site running next year, as I will no longer be teaching this course. I might take a break from PhD work to pop back in next year though!

Thanks to all for their contributions. Feel free to keep commenting on the site.

You can use this entry to share thoughts about the upcoming exam, discuss previous questions and share questions about material from the course. I will check periodically and offer comment!

A useful section-by-section analysis of Wittgestein’s Philosophical Investigations can be found here.

Was Wittgenstein a behaviourist?  If not, why not?

As mentioned in a previous lesson, Wittgenstein is noted for having developed two distinct philosophies. In the early work (like the Tractatus) Wittgenstein tried to spell out precisely what a logically constructed language can (and cannot) be used to say. Its seven basic propositions simply state that language, thought, and reality share a common structure, fully expressible in logical terms.

Seven basic propositions of the Tractatus:

1. The world is everything that is the case.

2. What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.

3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.

4. The thought is the significant proposition.

5. Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth function of itself.)

6. The general form of truth-function is [, , N()]. This is the general form of proposition.

7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

On Wittgenstein’s view, the world consists entirely of facts. (Tractatus 1.1) Human beings are aware of the facts by virtue of our mental representations or thoughts, which are most fruitfully understood as picturing the way things are. (Tractatus 2.1) These thoughts are, in turn, expressed in propostitions, whose form indicates the position of these facts within the nature of reality as a whole and whose content presents the truth-conditions under which they correspond to that reality. (Tractatus 4) Everything that is true—that is, all the facts that constitute the world—can in principle be expressed by atomic sentences. Imagine a comprehensive list of all the true sentences. They would picture all of the facts there are, and this would be an adequate representation of the world as a whole.

Since propositions merely express facts about the world, propositions in themselves are entirely devoid of value. The facts are just the facts. Everything else, everything about which we care, everything that might render the world meaningful, must reside elsewhere. (Tractatus 6.4) A properly logical language, Wittgenstein held, deals only with what is true. Aesthetic judgments about what is beautiful and ethical judgments about what is good cannot even be expressed within the logical language, since they transcend what can be pictured in thought. They aren’t facts. The achievement of a wholly satisfactory description of the way things are would leave unanswered (but also unaskable) all of the most significant questions with which traditional philosophy was concerned. (Tractatus 6.5)

Thus, even the philosophical achievements of the Tractatus itself are nothing more than useful nonsense; once appreciated, they are themselves to be discarded. The book concludes with the seventh proposition:

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

In his later work, Wittgenstein revises this view of the world. Wittgenstein found that the problem with this logical analysis is that it demands too much precision, both in the definition of words and in the representation of logical structure. In ordinary language, applications of a word often bear only a “family resemblance” to each other, and a variety of grammatical forms may be used to express the same basic thought. But under these conditions, Wittgenstein now realised, the hope of developing an ideal formal language that accurately pictures the world is not only impossibly difficult but also ill-conceived. Wittgenstein now believed the hope of developing an ideal formal language that accurately pictures the world is impossibly difficult and wrong-headed. His later work, then, attempted to re-think the nature of language.

The Philosophical Investigations begins with the following quote from St. Augustine, which outlines Augustine’s view of the development of language:

“When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples; the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.”

[St. Augustine, Confessions I.8]

Wittgenstein argues that Augustine’s explanation is inadequate, since it only accounts for proper nouns. Instead, he will suggest, the meaning of language lies in its use.

“For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 43).

The Beetle in the Box

“If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word ‘pain’ means – must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! – Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. – Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. – But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in people’s language? – If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. – No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is […].

If one has to imagine someone else’s pain on the model of one’s own, this is none too easy a thing to do: for I have to imagine pain which I do not feel on the model of the pain which I do feel.”

(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 293)

You might find this 1970s programme about Wittgenstein useful. They don’t make them like this any more, but perhaps they should.

You can find parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 on YouTube.

Remember that the final deadline for the submission of the second piece of coursework is this Monday.  As before, you need to make sure that you watermark your essay by submitting it online before handing a paper (watermarked) copy to the Undergraduate Office.