Why Are Today’s Wildest Philosophers British?

Posted on 1st November 2015 by Daniel Klein
Daniel Klein, author of our non-fiction Book of the Month, writes with humour and insight (as always) about three British philosophers that think outside the box.

There I was, seventy-six years old and still wondering how a person should live his life, so I asked some young American philosophy students what the latest philosophical thoughts were on the how-to-live problem.

What they responded was astonishing.  They directed me to three contemporary philosophers whose thinking is so far outside of the box that the box vanishes from sight.

But before getting into their provocative ideas, an observation about these innovative philosophers:  all three are British.  Not only that, but all three have boyish faces, impish smiles, and great masses of unruly hair.  They all look like rascals.

Now as an American who has dabbled in philosophy during the fifty-plus years since studying it at university, I am well aware that British philosophers have been in the habit of breaking new ground – Hume and Locke, Russell and Ayer come to mind.  But after breaking ground, these three new British philosophers  – David Pearce, Derek Parfit, and Adam Phillips – then blast off into the stratosphere.  And in the process, they explode any lingering American doubts that the Brits, well-behaved as they may appear, are unencumbered by conventional thinking.

The first rascal, David Pearce, calls himself a classical hedonist and a Utilitarian.  By this he means that like Epicurus, he believes the purpose of life is to maximize pleasure and, like Jeremy Bentham, he believes this maximized pleasure should be available to the greatest possible number of people.  So far, the ground appears unbroken.

But then Pearce rolls out his agenda for top-of-the-line pleasure in his on-line book, The Hedonistic Imperative, much of which reads like science fiction written by a pothead. What Pearce adds to the Epicurean hedonistic tradition is an up-to-date technical program for how to create an entire world of perpetually pain-free and depression-free people. The way he sees it, “Our descendants will be animated by gradients of genetically pre-programmed well-being that are orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences.” 

Pearce is an expert on nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and designer drugs and how they can affect the ‘neuromodulation of mood’. These include transcranial magnetic stimulation, central nervous system prostheses, and electrical neurostimulation implants.  High Tech Hedonism.

Some psychologists argue that Pearce’s approach is humanly impossible because of what they call our ‘happiness set-point’.  Their ‘hedonic treadmill’ thesis says that we constantly habituate ourselves to acquired levels of happiness and so we simply return to our original baseline level of feeling. 

And many philosophers think that even if Pearce’s program is possible, it is worthless because it is artificial.  They say that if you only feel happy as a result of some transcranial magnetic stimulation, it is not real happiness.  In fact, it is not the real you who feels happy. 

Maybe. But more than any other philosopher I know of, Pearce compels us to examine the foundation of hedonism.  Is pleasure all we really want in our lives? That must be pretty close to the first question for any philosophy of living. 

The second British maverick the students recommended to me was the contemporary moral philosopher, Derek Parit.  Parfit believes that what we call a ‘self’ is a slippery concept at best. Further, he thinks a plausible idea of a self has expiration dates along what we usually think of as our lifetimes. 

 For this reason, he thinks after a period of time we are no longer culpable for some act an ‘earlier self’ committed.  Writes Parfit: “People deserve much less punishment, or even perhaps no punishment, for what they did many years ago as compared to with what they did very recently.”

Parfit makes his ‘slippery self’ argument with use of my favorite philosophical technique, the thought experiment:

 “Two men, a Mr. Brown and a Mr. Robinson, had been operated on for brain tumors and brain extractions had been performed on both of them.  At the end of the operation, however, the assistant inadvertently put Brown’s brain in Robinson’s head, and Robinson’s brain in Brown’s head. One of these men immediately dies, but the other, the one with Robinson’s body and Brown’s brain, eventually regains consciousness. Let us call the latter ‘Brownson’.  Upon regaining consciousness Brownson exhibits great shock and surprise at the appearance of his body. Then, upon seeing Brown’s body, he exclaims incredulously ‘That’s me lying there.’  Pointing to himself he says ‘This isn’t my body; the one over there is.’ When asked his name, he automatically says ‘Brown’.  He recognizes Brown’s wife and family (whom Robinson had never met), and is able to describe in detail events in Brown’s life, always describing them as events in his own life. Of Robinson’s past life he evinces no knowledge at all. Over a period of time he is observed to display all of the personality traits, mannerisms, interests, likes and dislikes, and so on, that had previously characterized Brown, and to act and talk in ways completely alien to the old Robinson.”

So who, exactly, survived the operation and who did not?

Parfit believes that over time personal identity is nothing more than what he calls ‘psychological continuity’, all those ongoing memories, personality traits, mannerisms, interests, etc. that make Brown Brown, whatever body he happens to be inhabiting.  That’s it. Personal identity is nothing else -- not, say, a particular material object or, at the other end of the spectrum, some kind of a metaphysical entity like a soul.

Finally, there’s the psychologist/philosopher, Adam Phillips, who takes on Socrates’s famous dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living’ by asking, “Is the unlived life worth examining?”

Phillips’s point is that 21st century Man spends so much of his time being preoccupied with the lives he has not lived – what if I had married Prudence instead of Susannah ? -- that he misses out on appreciating the one life he actually has.  He makes a compelling case that we have examined ourselves into non-existence.

Startling original philosophers all.  But I am left wondering why they all happen to be British and not, say, French or American ?  It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with their unruly hair and impish grins.  Could it? 


                                          -- Daniel Klein



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