On the 5th of December a different sort of Williams Project happened. Instead of having an invited speaker come to talk to us we just had each other to talk to over a meal.
The premise of this particular Williams Project was to get us talking to each other. However, instead of the usual dinner table small talk, we were going to have more meaty conversation.
This is based on Alain de Botton’s (a Swiss-born British author and philosopher) ideas about the art of conversation. He believes that most people are very bad at having conversations because we think knowing how to talk to each other is a skill we’re born with instead of a learned art. He also states that most conversations are rather stale and that shyness is one of the main reasons that they can be boring. We need rules to give direction to where our conversation is going so that we feel like we’re coming away with new ideas. Alain mentions Madame Sophie de Condorcet who wrote a certain set of rules to enable a successful conversation so it is not just small talk. She believed that guests had to arrive with prepared conversational topics so that they could use each other like reference books in a library.
After we watched and listened to the short PowerPoint we then (based on Madame Sophie de Condorcet’s idea) wrote down two questions that we would bring to the meal to talk about. Everyone took turns asking their questions and people gave insightful answers on topics that would normally never be discussed at a dinner table. Some of the questions posed at my table where: “Why is Brexit happening?” and “Is it right for parents to punish their children if what they did was due to their hormonal changes?” Unlike most conversations we felt that we were taking something out of our exchanges and maybe things to think about later. I think the method and rules of conversation worked very well as it gave us an insight into each other’s personality. I will definitely want to try these rules out in the future and maybe school dinner chats will be a bit more lively!
On Tuesday 7th November, Dr Nils Kürbis, a philosophy lecturer from King’s College London, visited Chigwell to give a talk on ‘What the Tortoise said to Achilles’ by Lewis Carroll. Two Chigwell students read the dialogue. The opening part eluded to one of Zeno’s most famous paradoxes – the race between Achilles and the tortoise. Even though we know Achilles will overtake the tortoise (given the Tortoise had a head start), when broken down into small intervals it seems that the gap between Achilles and the tortoise gets smaller but never diminishes, hence Achilles can never overtake the tortoise. This is why this is a paradox. I helped to explain this using a simple diagram.
However Nils’ main focus was on what the text went on to describe. The tortoise was using the example of Euclid’s first proposition, which states that things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. This is a proposition. The problem began when we had to go from the proposition to the conclusion. To do this you need a middle step to reach the conclusion. Since the middle step contains the proposition you need another step to convince the very stubborn tortoise (in this example). This creates an infinite number of middle steps creating a sequence infinitely increasing (the opposite to the infinitely decreasing sequence in Zeno’s paradox).
As a philosophy professor he was able to really engage us into this problem which had a lot of people scratching their heads as they were being asked to think in what seemed to be a very illogical way.
Nils Kürbis on triangles
Nietzsche in full swing
On the 12th September, the first Williams Project of this academic year was held in which Professor Ken Gemes and Dr Andrew Huddlestone of Birkbeck, University of London, came to talk about Nietzsche, a prominent German philosopher of the 19th century. Being the Bernard Williams Philosophy Lecture, we welcomed Patricia Williams, his widow, yet it was also special as it was the first of many more interactive seminars in which the audience were constantly questioning and participating in a discussion which was constantly interpreting what the philosopher means.
The talk began with a reading from ‘The Gay Science’ on the madman and whether ‘God is dead’ – with ‘God’ referring to the idea of god, religion and morality and whether we have some morals and human values left in this westernized modern world. This encouraged further questions of “How does the madman react to the death of God?” and “How did the marketplace folk, the non-believers, react to the madman’s whimsical nonsense?”. More importantly, the passage describes us as the murderers of God, which invites us to ask “What do we do now if there are no more Christian values? Do we create our own or is the madman merely a madman and we should ignore him? Do we need these old values in such a new society?” The discussion only developed further into ideas and many questions regarding nihilism and also the personal and political beliefs of Nietzsche – an atheist!
Overall, this talk was incredibly engaging – allowing the audience to question what the ‘death of God’ means to them, and serves as a great introduction to a year of Williams Project sessions.
Dr. Florian Steinberger, philosopher and lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, spoke to both branches of the Williams Project. He spoke to us about two very different philosophical topics, beginning with “animal rights”: what are they? Do animals really have them and should we respect them? There were multiple discussions, questions and debates on whether animals could really have preferences and feelings to be deserving of rights as humans do. We also covered the issue of why we are willing to protect them to a certain extent, nonetheless, also willing to consume them. We outlined the religious, moral and health aspects linked to the matter to delve deeper into if we could and should give animals rights. The discussion was thoroughly enjoyed by all of us of all age groups, being a very controversial and interactive talking point.
He continued with second session on the topic of “infinity” – a more mathematical approach towards philosophy and the possibility and impossibility of infinity, the contradictions and the proof – in particular whether some kinds of infinity can be greater than others (for example the infinity of real numbers can be shown to be larger than the infinity of integers). Although complex for a few of us(!), many were able to grasp the concept of how infinity could be perceived; it was an engaging and stimulating lecture on a rather unfamiliar topic.
We are grateful for the discussions led by Dr. Steinberger, and thank him for enlightening us on two of the many contemporary philosophical issues we face today.
Dr Stacie Friend, from Birkbeck College, University of London, spoke to both branches of the Williams Project. She asked us why, when we know they don’t exist, do we still care for characters in stories and films? In particular, she asked if emotional responses to fiction are the same kind of emotions which we experience in real life, and, secondly, whether such emotions are irrational?
She set out these problems in the form of the ‘Paradox of Fiction’:
- We experience emotions toward fictional characters, situations and events.
- We do not experience emotions when we do not believe in the existence of the objects of emotion.
- We do not believe in the existence of fictional characters, situations and events.
It was a very interactive afternoon, with some very stimulating contributions. Stacie continued the discussion into the evening, and we are very grateful to her for her time and expertise.
Mark Pottle is Isaiah Berlin Legacy Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. Having studied Modern History at Sheffield University and done his doctoral research at Oxford University, he continues his work on modern British history at Oxford and with emphasis on Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was a Latvian-born Jewish philosopher and political theorist, whose family came to England in 1921, some years after the Russian Revolution. Mr Pottle gave us an insightful talk on democracy – “the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried” as said by Winston Churchill. It was the principal idea behind this quotation that the discussion revolved around: the huge injustices we see in modern day democracies while also knowing its worse alternatives. Mr Pottle also introduced Isaiah Berlin to those of us who had previously been unfamiliar with him, and along with that – his key ideas on Liberalism, Pluralism and their place in, and importance to, democracy.
At this the first meeting of the year we were delighted to have with us Patricia and Jonny Williams, widow and son of Bernard.
John Gardner (Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford) introduced us to his topic by first discussing his step-son, now in the process of applying to do Philosophy at a Scottish university. He talked of the boy’s reluctance to move on to that new stage because of the inevitability of having to separate from his Sixth Form friends, something that was certainly on my mind and surely on the minds of some of the other audience members in similar positions. From this we began to debate the necessity of a ‘friend’, and it was suggested that a friend was someone who was the ‘most useful’. This prompted the question of whether letting go of ‘useful’ friends would create the opportunity for more ‘useful’ friends, as well as the response that surely friends are a crucial part of our identity, at least in the forming of our character. The other example John used was an instalment of ‘Charlie & Lola’ in which Lola won’t let go of a specific library book, which she reads upon every visit, only to arrive at the library one day to discover that another child is reading that book, and instead she becomes infatuated with a new one. Although quite a simplistic example, it did help to keep the philosophy relevant.
The choice we were constantly presented with (and voted repeatedly on) was the compensation mentioned in the title: should somebody who undergoes, for example, a car accident and loses a limb, be compensated with either the closest thing to what they lost, with a completely different opportunity to start something new – what in effect is best for them now, or with nothing at all? We discussed this in terms of people’s worth to society, and if it was worth the state or some other financial entity giving them compensation at all, but also in terms of whether, by the very nature of the car accident, their outlook and impact on society would be changed.
All in all a very thought-provoking talk, and a fantastic start to the next year of Williams Project lectures.
The meeting in progress