Monday, 18 August 2014

Pessoa's philosophical writings

Good art is often said to contain an element of philosophy, but it is not quite clear that the reverse is true. In a sense, good philosophy is based on strictness of thought, rather than the associative flowering that is so characteristic of art. This has not stopped eminent artists to embark on philosophical journeys, Satre's existentialism is a good example. Goethe also tried his hands at a philosophy of colours, although little of his theoretical ruminations have stood the test of time. The attraction of philosophy to writers, painters and other artists may have more to do with a perceived kinship of themes that inform art as well as philosophy, such as life and death, God and the conditions of human existence.

Measuring the world. An artists impression of science. William Blake: Newton (1795)
Pessoa's philosophical writings show clearly that this resemblance of thematic preoccupations is not sufficient to produce good philosophy. The best that can be said of his philosophical essays is that the reading 'can be rough' (Ribeiro, p.XXVIII; Ferdinand Pessoa: Philosophical Essays. A Critical Edition. New York 2012).

Nuno Ribeiro, the editor of Pessoa's philosophical essays, tries to strike a generous tone when he writes that Pessoa's 'philosophies' should be seen as a form of literary experimentation. He points to the fact that Pessoa uses heteronyms for his (unpublished) essays, meaning that he invents imaginary authors for his writings (with more or less fully fledged biographical sketches), which allows him to negate his own authorship. Pessoa, Ribeiro argues, thus creates a constantly shifting angle which permits him to explore philosophical topics.

To me, this is an extremely magnanimous line of argument, at once underestimating Pessoa's philosophical aspirations and overestimating his conceptual dexterity. Philosophy that explores a topic from different angles is of course not new. Plato's dialogues are of this very quality. Their methodological approach rests on the ability of the interlocutors to adopt different perspectives to test their coherence and validity.

The difference to Pessoa's writings however is that Plato does not simply shift perspectives as the dialogues proceed but also applies criteria to judge the various opinions. The unique nature of Pessoa's philosophical writings lies in his refusal to single out any critical framework which could assist him to reach a judgement or validate one perspective over another. It is not the pluralism of voices that is mildly annoying in Pessoa's writings but his inability to bring these voices to a fugal conclusion.

In fact, Pessoa appears to be afraid to reach conclusions because he does not trust his own vocabulary. His thoughts on rationalism are jumpy and scattershot at best, dipping in and out of problems and issues without ever bringing to bear on them a consistent adjudicating framework.

So why read Pessoa's philosophy at all? Because it is instructive of what makes good philosophy. In essence, good philosophical writing rests on preferences for conceptual frameworks that are being ruthlessly applied to the issue investigated. Only this permits one to make commitments that clear the fog of voices. Since Pessoa does not want to appear as the author in word or deed, his writings remain unfathomable even for himself. In the end, he admits defeat, pointing to the myriad terminological entanglements that he cannot escape. This may make good postmodern literature but philosophy it isn't.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Thomas Piketty and the discourse of envy

Thomas Piketty's 600+ page book on Capital has caused some jitters in the US and UK. Some right wing commentators have roundly condemned the work as a product of unmitigated socialist ideology (which might just be a badge of honour in Piketty's home country France). Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The book is in fact adopting a measured and balanced tone throughout and cultivates a sense of intellectual fairness that serves the ongoing discussions about equality well.

It is also well written and easily accessible which makes it, if not exactly bed time reading, a welcome contribution to a wider debate on the effects of capital accumulation in the developed world (Pickety is unashamedly focussing on the 'First World', mainly for reasons of data sources, and consequently there is very little about China, India, or even Central European countries in Piketty's volume).

It is of course easy to find flaws in a monumental piece stretching over more than 600 pages but Pickety insulates himself well to criticism by pursuing a tightly controlled theme and rarely straying from the main path. The data he has marshalled are impressive and the argument flows coherently and plausibly.

Yet, after a detailed exposition of capital in all its manifestations (real estate, financial and industrial assets), Piketty then embarks on a more daring path, entering the territory of economic prediction and tax proposals. His suggestion of a world wide capital tax has been widely debated and criticised so I wont go into detail on this, except, in fairness, point out that he repeatedly reiterates the hypothetical and idealistic character of his own proposal.

A more relevant criticism appears to lie in the way in which he discusses the purposes of taxation in general. At times, he seems to suggest that the reason taxation is levied is to give tax authorities (and researchers) a better data set. To my mind, this is like putting the cart before the horse. Taxation should have a purpose beyond simply generating knowledge for bureaucrats in tax authorities or, incidentally, academics.

Once his political instincts come to the fore, he identifies another additional purpose of taxation: to reduce capital differentials amongst the populations. This, of course, is the expected culmination of his treatise on the history of capital: to reduce inequalities. Yet, Piketty cant quite bring himself to look for a consistent justification why taxation should be the prime mechanism to bring about equality. To do this, he would have to enter the domain of political philosophy yet, he struggles to engage in this debate. It may be because the language of politics is less determined by the grammar of economic development than by political legitimacy, an aspect of political morality that sits oddly in any economic treatise. In an aside, he lets his guard down and writes:

'Even a person of the most refined taste and elegance cannot easily spend 500 million euros in a year.' (p525)

The implication is that if somebody cannot plausibly make use of what she owns, she should not keep it. It is this curious inversion of property rights that puts him on a par with the illiberal sections of radical socialism. Incursions into people's right to life, liberty and property (as Locke referred to them) requires careful justification. Simply stating that somebody couldn't plausibly have any use for their property moves Piketty dangerously close to the illiberal discourse of envy. This does a disservice to an otherwise insightful and impressive historico-economic study.

Saturday, 2 August 2014


One of the first movies I remember watching in a cinema was Jaws. It must have been in the 1980s and saying that I watched it may be an exaggeration. The movie was screened in an open air cinema at a camp site in a Polish Baltic sea resort. The audio track was in English (American English to be precise). There were French subtitles whilst the camp site owner simultaneously translated the dialogue through a mic in Polish so the audience could understand what was going on. None of which was any useful to me, an 8 year old German boy. Still, the movie made an impression and I have always had a soft spot for the struggle of Chief Brody with the beast from the deep.

Whilst the first instalment of Jaws is just being released in refreshed colour and sound, my favourite Jaws is its sequel, Jaws 2. Sure, there is something Hemingwayian as Brody, perched in the lookout of the sinking Orca, delivers the final coup de grรขce to the beast. Yet, Jaws 2 seemed to add a human dimension to his man-beast confrontation that still makes for remarkable viewing, even twenty years later.

I think it is Brody's slow but inevitable decline into paranoia that makes fascinating entertainment. As he starts to see sharks everywhere, his social bearings are coming apart. An eye on a shaky photograph becomes evidence of murder in the sea and he eventually cracks up by emptying his revolver's magazine into the open sea.

Confronted by the local mayor and the local aldermen, his madness tips over the edge. Brody's paranoia becomes a problem for social and political management. At that point the movie is a study in local politics and its inability to grasp risks. As the aldermen and mayor witness Brody's behaviour they realise that they have rules for everything from voting to local enterprise yet no rule to deal with paranoia masquerading as concern.

'Nothing personal' or on the edge of insanity?
Chief Brody going for the kill in Jaws 2

The ironic twist of the movie is of course that Brody's paranoia turns out to be grounded in reality. Yet, it's too late then. He has to go it alone, just as in the first movie, one man against the incarnation of evil. In a crucial scene, a vet, disturbed by Brody's rush to judgement looks him in the eye and says: 'Sharks don't take things personal'. Well, this one does, which makes Chief Brody a perfect match. Incidentally, it also makes for bloody good viewing.

In praise of ... Prince Charles

When I was in fourth grade, our arts teacher asked us to paint the city of the future. I took a very broad brush and painted plenty of blocks of flats, square or rectangular, and clearly aligned them along a symmetrical grid. I don't think I bothered with putting windows into the buildings. It would have required some dexterous painting abilities, something certainly beyond my artistic grasp back then (or now). The outcome was as expected: square, ordered and hideously boring to look at, without a thought for the human beings who presumably would have to live in this city of the future very soon.

When I came to Birmingham for the first time in 1991, I was shocked. The city had ruthlessly copied my painting and rebuilt its centre exactly as I had pictured it only a few years earlier! In record time and with the same cavalier neglect for the need of humane habitation. Everywhere there were blocks of flats without windows and concrete subways. I was incensed. There was my picture of a future city that I had envisioned as a fourth grader and I had not received a single pence in royalties!

Not suitable for living - Owen Luder's Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth -
or as Prince Charles called it: a 'mildewed lump of elephant droppings' 

Of course, Birmingham is not the only British city that struggles with the legacy of post-war architecture. There are few urban centres in England or Wales that have been spared the attention of an unimaginative fourth grader with an architecture degree. This is often blamed on the large scale second world war bombing that ruined Coventry and others. But this is not quite the whole picture. Whilst the 1950s saw a significant increase in housebuilding, it was the expansive use of concrete in the 1960s that produced the brutalist city-scape scarring Britain.

The BBC recently ran a feature of several British cities that are coming to terms with this legacy. The preferred way of dealing with Birmingham, Hull or Coventry city centre appears to be dynamite, or rather: controlled destruction.

Should we regret the disappearance of these concrete blobs disfiguring the city landscape? There are those (mainly the architects who were responsible for these aberrations in human habitation) who argue that they represent a significant part of architectural history and should be preserved. I am unconvinced. What they forget to mention is that many of these concrete buildings required the destruction of Victorian or Georgian buildings that were still extant. The architecture of the 1960s did not arise on a blank sheet. Town planners and architects engaged in a near criminal tabula rasa which tried to eliminate the very architectural history that they now want to be part of.

There is of course one person who consistently warned of these architectural follies. The heir to the British throne. Prince Charles is widely ridiculed by some in the press but I think he has always been sharp, witty and sophisticated in his criticism of modern architecture, qualities that were mostly absent from the work of British architects or my own foray into architectural paintings as a fourth grader.

So, here is it: Three cheers for the common sense, and the heir of the throne!