tag: Philosophy

May 2011

On This Deity: 31st May 1996

Check out my new piece over at On This Deity.

31st May 1996: The Death of Timothy Leary.

At 12:44am on the 31st of May 1996, Dr. Timothy Leary sat bolt upright in bed startling the small group of friends and family who had gathered to keep him company during his final days. He had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer the previous year and it had finally run its course. “Why not?” he asked those keeping vigil. Again, louder, “Why not?” He repeated the question a third time. “Why not?” Then, lying back down, Dr. Leary whispered his final word… “beautiful”… and slipped into death. He was 75 years old.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Apr 2011

On This Deity: 18th April 1955

Yesterday’s article at On This Deity was by yours truly…

18th April 1955: The Death of Albert Einstein.

On the 18th of April 1955 Albert Einstein died in Princeton Hospital, New Jersey. He was 76 years old. One of the chief architects of the modern era, there are few other individuals whose impact on human culture has been so significant. Fifty years earlier, in 1905, during what would later be referred to as his “miracle year”, Einstein published a series of papers that sparked a revolution in physics, laying the groundwork for twenty years of remarkable work. Papers that not only revolutionised the field in which he specialised, they revolutionised the world around him. In an era when established orthodoxies were under fire from all sides… from Marx and Darwin… from Nietzsche, Freud and Joyce… from technological advance and an emerging mass media, Einstein overturned the most fundamental orthodoxy of them all – Newtonian Physics.

Our well-ordered clockwork universe dissolved into a seething ocean of quantum uncertainty, and nothing was ever quite the same again.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Mar 2011

On This Deity: 14th March 1883

I have a new piece up at On This Deity

14th March 1883: The Death of Karl Marx.

“On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think.” Those were the words of Friedrich Engels at the funeral of his close friend and creative collaborator, Karl Marx. The funeral took place in Highgate Cemetery in London. The year was 1883 and there were less than a dozen mourners present. The world had yet to be exposed to the work of the man laid to rest in that small ceremony. But it would only be a few short years before the established political order would tremble at the name of Karl Marx and – in some places – be ripped down entirely by the words that flowed from his pen.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Feb 2011

On This Deity: 2nd February 1970

Written very late last night, I’m amazed it’s even semi-coherent, my latest piece is up at On This Deity

2nd February 1970: The Death of Bertrand Russell.

On the 2nd of February 1970, after a long life in which he travelled far and wide, Bertrand Russell died less than a hundred miles from his Welsh birthplace. To some he was the most important philosopher of the 20th century… a Nobel-Laureate who produced seminal works in the areas of logic, mathematics, political philosophy, the philosophy of language, moral philosophy and more. Others saw him first and foremost as an heroic champion of peace, justice and liberal ideals… a tireless campaigner and activist; a pragmatist who never lost hold of his ideals. Unsurprisingly though, there were many who viewed him as a dangerous radical and a threat to the established order. So much so that he was ostracised by academia during the First World War, losing his job and eventually his liberty, ending up in Brixton Prison for several months as punishment for his tireless peace activism.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Jan 2011

On This Deity: 19th January 1865

Another piece by me over at On This Deity

19th January 1865: The Death of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Let us cast our mind back to this day in 1865 to remember the death (at the age of 56) and celebrate the life of the world’s first anarchist. Actually, it’s probably stretching things a little to describe Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in such terms; but he was the first to use the term “anarchism” (from the Greek, meaning “without rule”) in the modern sense and the first to self-apply the label.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Nov 2010

On This Deity: 24th November 1859

Just a quickie to point you towards my latest contribution to Dorian’s excellent On This Deity

24th November 1859: Charles Darwin publishes ‘On The Origin of Species’.

Today we’re looking back 151 years to November 24th 1859 and the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Although few of you reading this will be unaware of the significance of this remarkable book, it is worth taking a moment to consider the radical cultural shift it produced and the reverberations still being felt.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Aug 2010

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

I have a lot of time for Slavoj Žižek. Which isn’t to say I agree with everything he’s ever said or written, but by and large I feel he is possessed of a rare wisdom and insight, coupled with a wicked sense of humour. Aside from anything else, I don’t think I’d have made it through Lacan’s Écrits if I hadn’t paved the way with a couple of Žižek books (Looking Awry and his excellent primer, How to read Lacan). I’d also highly recommend Žižek’s epic A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a three hour documentary that functions both as an analysis of the medium of film and an introduction to psychoanalytic theory.

Anyhoo, I recently stumbled upon this short animation (from the excellent RSAnimate) which condenses a recent lecture he gave on the dangers of so-called “ethical consumerism”. The original lecture can be viewed here (and is well worth a half hour of your time). But I’ll just embed the condensed version for those of you with shorter attention spans (the pretty pictures will help hold your interest 😉

UPDATE: Incidentally, if you watch the original, is it just me or does Žižek give the impression of having just taken a massive hit of cocaine?

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video

May 2009


In which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism.

For the past couple of years, a property developer has been applying to build a waste incinerator within sight of my home. Needless to say, I gave generously to the campaign against the Energy Recovery Facility (euphemism is required if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them, as someone once observed). I didn’t get actively involved in the campaign however. For two specific reasons. Firstly, I was quite busy with other stuff. Secondly, I was confident that the planning application would be turned down. Which is not to say that the campaign didn’t need funding (planning applications need to be actively challenged, and even if your challenge is likely to be a success, it still requires time, effort and resources).

And as far as I could make out, that success was pretty much guaranteed. There wasn’t a single local councillor in favour of the plan, and every one of the local TDs and senators openly opposed it. As everyone knows, land rights and planning are at the very heart of local politics in Ireland. But with memories of the Mahon tribunal still fresh (it’s still technically in session, I believe), it’d be a complete fool who’d pass brown envelopes around a controversial project like this. And with bribery not an option just now, the decision had to be made on the merits of the project. As such, it was never going to pass. You could prove that on an etch-a-sketch, as the man said.

Firstly the location was absurd. Genuinely off-the-wall, could-only-possibly-have-been-considered-for-financial-reasons, absurd. The plan was to build the thing on top of one of the highest hills in the Rathcoole area. Rathcoole is right on the southwest edge of Dublin city. For a significant chunk of the year, the prevailing wind in Ireland comes from the southwest. Seriously, that one fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the project.

And there’s so much more. The road that would feed the incinerator is already one of the most congested commuter routes in the country. There’s a project underway to bring Dublin’s light rail system further out this direction specifically to reduce the amount of traffic on that road. You just won’t find anyone on the local planning board who’ll vote in favour of more traffic on the N7. Not without the aid of an extra-large brown envelope.

But on top of all that, it turns out the developer is an out-of-town consortium. And this is commuter belt. Prime land from a development standpoint. Luxury golf hotels and expensive residential developments. Property values are high, but dropping like everywhere else, and existing developers — those with large plots of land in the area and long-standing relationships with local politicians — don’t want to see those values drop further thanks to the presence of an incinerator.

So for those three reasons, it realistically stood no chance. But interestingly, all three of those objections are rooted, to varying degrees, in NIMBYism.

Not In My Back Yard (ism)

My own objection to the incinerator, in contrast, was based on a fourth reason; one that applies to all waste incinerators whatever their location. So even if positioned in what’s demonstrated to be the best location for such a facility, even if the local infrastructure can take the pressure and local property values positively soar as a result… even then, I think generating electricity from burning waste is a staggeringly bad idea.

In fact, it’s difficult for me to get across just how bad an idea I think it is without straying perilously close to caricature. To not merely create an industry that generates profit from burning waste, but suggest we rely upon that industry to provide basic services, is utterly psychotic. I can think of other words for it, but that’s the least rude. It is, just like any decision to build new nuclear power stations is, a statement to the effect that we are incapable or unwilling to act rationally in pursuit of a sustainable society and have decided, instead, to be active participants in a spectacular collapse.

By and large we are not aware that’s the statement we’re making, of course. A big bunch of unconscious processes, dontchaknow.

All the same, in the case of the Rathcoole incinerator, it is a happy coincidence that the objections of the local population were in accord with the Greater Good (if, as I’ve come to do, we define the “Greater Good” as those actions and decisions that promote a transition towards sustainability involving the least possible suffering). But what if they weren’t? What happens when the objections of the local population become obstacles towards that Greater Good? Do we accept that people have the right to continue acting unsustainably even if that behaviour dooms us all to the same fate? Do we allow the psychotic to thrash about, damaging himself and everyone around him? Or do we accept the need for restraint? And do we accept that need even when the psychotic is ourself?

Clearly we do accept that need. We just haven’t learnt to identify western consumerism as the huge episode of self-harm that it is.

In defence of NIMBYism, Merrick has this to say…

NIMBYism, like preaching to the converted, is an underrated activity.

To decry NIMBYs is absurd. We all have more concern for the things that affect our personal lives, we all care more about the things we see every day.

A friend of mine was campaigning against some nonsense from his council and knocked on doors in his street. One person said ‘you know your problem, you think you can change the world’.

My friend replied, ‘how big’s your world? Our street is a pretty big part of it. We can change that. If everyone did the same, then in the bigger sense we would change the world, too’.

I appreciate the point being made. It’s the essence of all direct action politics in fact. But the central problem remains… this is only a valid strategy if we assume that the local concerns of individuals aren’t in contradiction with the needs of society as a whole. When everyone objects to an incinerator being built on their (metaphorical) street, then no incinerators get built and we can chalk one up for NIMBYism. But when nobody wants their view obstructed by wind farms… or nobody wants to abandon the luxury of their private car…

What then? I don’t accept that the demands of the masses; whether expressed democratically through the ballot box, or economically through their choice of soap powder; should be considered an adequate guide for our collective action. Especially when those demands can be shown to be reckless and destructive. A hundred years ago we had, in a sense, the luxury of basing our decisions upon ideological concerns. Our desires and demands could shape our behaviour because our environment could absorb anything we had the power to do. That’s just not the case any more. Thanks to technology and population growth, we have bumped up against the limits.

And because of this, it simply doesn’t matter what we want to do anymore. Our options have been curtailed, but we don’t quite appreciate this yet. Environmental limits will impose certain courses of action upon us. And these limits cannot be shifted by voting, nor by the most well-organised direct action campaign. We have reached the point where there are definite right and wrong ways to act, assuming our goal is anything remotely like the “Greater Good” I defined earlier.

Just as it is absurd to “decry NIMBYism” as a general principle (and it is absurd; I never suggested that, Merrick), so it’s absurd to assume it will always be a force pushing in the right direction. And when it pushes us further towards the brink…?

… well … as I said earlier… “in which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism”.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2008

An announcement

I’m finished my thesis.

It’s done. It’s printing as I type.

Yeah, you heard me right… it’s done.

Holy crap.

The last two words are “epistemological lunacy”. How cool is that?

YES!!!! It’s DONE!!!

That’s all for now.

18 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Jan 2008

Organ donation, grief and a question of tone

I may be wrong here, but I’m fairly certain that an historic first was recently marked. Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, actually made a half-decent proposal. I believe it’s his first since taking office, but I’m open to correction on that.

I’m afraid he didn’t surrender himself to the International Court of Human Rights for his involvement in the illegal invasion of Iraq. No, what he did was a little less dramatic, but a good idea all the same; he backed a radical change in the way organ donation works in the UK.

As it stands now, and this is the case in Ireland too, a person must place their name on the organ donation registry if their organs are to be eligible for use in transplant surgery post mortem. Brown appears to be pushing towards a system of “presumed consent” whereby your organs are automatically considered available unless you place your name on an “opt-out” registry, or unless your next of kin lodges an objection at the time of your death.

This is a great idea. Over the course of a decade it will save ten thousand people from a painful and premature death and will relieve the suffering of more than a hundred thousand others. In my view, Gordon Brown should be strongly supported on this issue (at the very least, wait until he’s talking about something else before you throw those eggs). It represents a positive step for British society and, like one or two other social policies which have been running successfully for years in the Netherlands, should really be adopted here in Ireland and elsewhere around the world.

Naturally, there are those who object. And seeing as how I’m usually on the side of the objectors when it comes to the plans of British Prime Ministers, I’m willing to listen to those objections and see if maybe there’s something I’ve missed. There doesn’t appear to be.

The Libertarian Position

What we do have is an incoherent libertarian position regarding ownership of the body. By “presuming consent”, the state is essentially asserting ownership of a person’s body; an assertion that must be denied. I believe that’s the essence of the libertarian objection, though I’m willing to be corrected on that should a libertarian pass through.

The trouble is, the objection is based upon two fundamental misconceptions.

The first is that ownership extends beyond death. It clearly doesn’t. Upon death, all ownership is transferred. It’s called “inheritance” and we’ve developed all manner of complicated rules by which it occurs. While a person is alive, I believe they should indeed be considered the “owner” of their body (in whatever sense that might mean in this context). This is one of the reasons I feel, for example, that drug prohibition should be opposed, though that’s a subject most right-wing libertarians find it politically expedient to ignore. But once a person is dead…? Well, it is simply not possible for a dead person to own anything. Not even their own body.

The people who are considered legal owners of the body, one supposes, are the next of kin. And rather conveniently, the policy proposes to leave the decision in their hands. They may insist that the body remain intact if that is what they wish. This right is not removed, the next of kin may still assert absolute “ownership” if they choose. And the opt-out registry, just like a will, provides a legal facility to those who may not trust their next of kin (for instance). The libertarian argument is bunk.

And that’s without getting to the second fundamental misconception. Which is, that “the state” is taking ownership of the organs. It’s not. At least, not in any sense that matters. But because “the state” is the big bad wolf of libertarianism, it tends to be crowbarred into a lot of arguments where it doesn’t really belong. It’s a symbol of evil. A rallying point. As such, the emotional power it carries as a symbol is worth deploying even when it lessens the coherence of the argument.

All the same, that’s exactly what it does.

The state is not asserting any ownership at all. It is merely setting the rules by which ownership is transferred. By passing laws, it acts as arbitrator, just as it does in all cases where inheritance laws are complied with.

What I do concede is that right now, the shortage of suitable organs means that a selection process must be undertaken, and in that sense the organs are “allocated” by the state (or a state agency). A side-benefit of this new policy, however, would be to eliminate even that element of “state” intervention. Essentially it would have the practical effect of further liberating the transplant process from politics. You’d imagine that’s the kind of thing that would surely be applauded by libertarians.

Different voices

A successful organ transplant can, in essence, take an organ that was otherwise destined to rot in the ground and instead use it to give life to a dying person. This is about as uncontroversially positive a thing as I can think of. Sure, we can get all abstract about the demographic dangers of medical advancement, and we can question the cost:benefit ratio of transplants as compared with other medical programmes. We can do those things. But when all’s said and done, transplant cases usually boil down to taking an individual whose daily life is characterised by significant physical pain; and relieving them of that pain.

I mean, it’s just your basic Good Thing, and if we can afford it but aren’t doing it because of a shortage of organs, then we need to change that immediately. A system of presumed consent in tandem with the aforementioned opt-outs would be a simple, effective and socially just method of achieving this.

What has frustrated me a little about the debate on this issue, however, hasn’t been the libertarian objection. Instead it’s been the tone of some of those who actually support the policy change. “Living people matter. When you’re dead, you’re dead” was probably the worst offender (unsurprisingly it came from the rather silly, and mystifyingly well-regarded by some, Polly Toynbee) but even the good guys got in on the action as Justin illustrates in “Monkeys and the organ minder“.

Both articles are guilty of one of the cardinal sins of social policy debate. And they’re symptomatic of a wider trend on this issue. They propose (or in this case, support) a policy without giving any real thought to the impact of the policy on those directly affected. Indeed, they go so far as to caricature and trivialise them. I find this problematic.

We’re dealing here with a significant shift in social policy that will have an impact on two groups of people. Firstly and most obviously, those in need of transplanted organs. The policy is essentially (and rightfully so) tailored to them and is primarily aimed at serving their interests. However the second group of people who will be routinely and significantly affected by this policy is the recently bereaved. This is problematic because we’re talking about a group of people who will be under great stress and prone to irrationality. People who are potentially experiencing the worst trauma of their life. We need to place a sensitivity to this fact right at the core of our thinking on this issue. And those who fail to do this are, to be honest, speaking in a voice unpleasant to my ears.

The Psychoanalytic Position

In 1917 Sigmund Freud published Mourning and Melancholia (it can be found in Volume 14 of the Complete Works). It’s a landmark paper and represents the culmination of two years working towards an understanding of grief and depression (to use modern terminology). Despite its age, however, I contest that it is as good an explanation of the grieving process as exists…

It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment. We rely on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.
In what, now, does the work which mourning performs consist? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in presenting it in the following way. Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition — it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it. Why this compromise by which the command of reality is carried out piecemeal should be so extraordinarily painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of economics. It is remarkable that this painful unpleasure is taken as a matter of course by us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.

Sigmund Freud | Mourning and Melancholia

We can quibble about the details and about the terminology (I take a much more Jungian view of libido, for instance, than many psychoanalysts) but ultimately it’s a pretty damn accurate description of the grieving process, as I feel certain anyone who has gone through it will attest. We deny the death. Initially it may be quite overt… “No, you’ve got that wrong. I don’t believe you!” even though we have no reason in the world to doubt the news we’ve been given. Usually that overt denial passes quite rapidly. In Freud’s words, “respect for reality gains the day”. Beyond that, it can take a long time to ‘carry out the work of mourning’. Our unconscious may be filled with memories of the deceased, and each one requires re-evaluation based on this new information. Much of this is indeed unconscious, but plenty of it isn’t. We experience it as dreams of the person, and as a tendency to “think about them” a lot in the immediate aftermath of their death. Notably, as time passes, those thoughts become less painful.

This is how we grieve, and any social policy designed to deal with grieving people needs to take it into account. If it doesn’t, then it runs the risk of being a monstrous attack on the vulnerable. What’s vital to take away from this account of the grieving process is that there is a very real period during which a recently bereaved person will overtly deny the death. In most people it lasts mere seconds… long enough to say “I don’t believe it…” then Bang! it hits you. But in others it can drag on. This isn’t a choice they make, and it doesn’t make them ‘perverse’ or ‘weird’ in the words of one commentator. It’s how grief works in some people. Polly Toynbee talks about the forces of superstition and reaction and about overcoming them with the “spirit of enlightenment”. What? Overcoming human grief? What’s next? A war on terror?

The point is that a grieving person may well suffer a total failure in reality-testing. This happens often enough that we consider it a natural reaction to bereavement, albeit at the extreme end of such reactions. Such people may — and often do — fixate upon the integrity of the body and insist that the dead person will soon awaken. This period may continue beyond the time at which organ harvest becomes impossible. And an attempt to interfere with this process could well be needlessly* traumatic for the already traumatised person.

Now, nobody is suggesting that these people be deprived of the right to “opt-out”. I’m not trying to build a straw man here. I’m merely suggesting that those who speak in tones close to contempt about the irrational behaviour of the recently bereaved are failing to demonstrate the sort of basic compassion that should inform any discussion of social policy in this area.

* I say “needlessly” because it bears mentioning that a system which presumes consent will see the total number of available organs rise dramatically, thereby lessening the impact of each individual opt-out.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion