Philosophy and Ethics

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Thursday, 4 June 2020

Vision, window-cleaning and philosophy

Sadly, this is not the view from my window! But of a walking route down the volcanic spine of  La Palma in the Canary Islands.

Here is Essex, human ingenuity is channelled even into the naming of modest companies.  A local window-cleaning firm boast ‘Vision Technologies’ on the side of its van! But that has prompted me to reflect on an all-too-common philosophical and political malaise.  
Our attempts to shape the future tend to focus on getting rid of the grease and spots on the glass in front of our noses, rather than a vision of where we want to be.  It’s a necessary first step, or course, but never more than that. 'How do we get out of this particular hole?' appears to determine policy, rather than a fully thought-out vision.
We all have plenty of muck on the glass – determined by our social and political upbringing, our present needs and aspirations, and the prejudices that we have accumulated through life. So it's reasonable that the initial task of philosophy, like window-cleaning, shouldl be to clear the glass. That was the theme of the Logical Positivists early in the 20th century – clearing out nonsense in order that language might develop scientific precision.  
However, as we now recognise, that aim was in itself just another prejudice, another smear on the glass.  The task of philosophy – a hopeless one in absolute terms, but none the worse for that – is to clear away all such prejudices. And, even if we can never achieve a ‘view from nowhere’, we can at least be aware of the somewhere that presently shapes our view.
As I contemplate the political world today - and particularly the response to Covid-19 - I just long for one thing above all else: decision making and policy implementation that is measured, carefully thought out, transparently explained, and genuinely unbiassed.
I shall scream if I hear yet again that politicians are simply 'following the science.'  Science is a methodology for gaining facts, not a compass for guiding political choices. It should always be factual and value-free. It is down to the politicians to use the facts it provides to inform their judgements.  Never blame the car for driving the wrong way up a one-way street!
Two images struck me recently, both related to this issue of glass and vision.   For some time I have been developing cararacts. I think that I can see clearly and that the colours I enjoy are real. In that sense my vision is adequate, and I am thankful for it.  But I am also reminded that the ‘early opacities’, from which the optician tells me I am suffering, imply that, if the experience of those who have cataracts removed is anything to go by, once those opacities are removed I shall suddenly realise an enhanced intensity of colour and detail.  My existing philosophical prejudices are but opacities, perhaps never capable of being completely removed, but worth being aware of when I describe what I see. 
The other image concerns photography.  I confess to being a pixel-peeper – the sad term for someone who routinely examines his or her photographs at pixel level on the screen in order to inspect them for sharpness, and aberrations. Pixel peeping shows up faults in photographic equipment and technique that a full-screen view masks.  Of late, I’ve noticed that, when I use one of my better lenses, I find myself no longer looking at pixels themselves but enjoying the recorded reality rather than the image. I’m not aware of the image, only of the view photographed.  
Now that may be a sign of recovery from a rather sad obsession, but I think we can learn from it.  Those who engage in philosophy tend to examine in some detail the logical and conceptual apparatus by which we understand the world. It may appear useful, but it can lead to a obsession with the details of argument that is the equivalent of the obsessive pixel-peeping of the photographer.  However, at its best, philosophy can transcend itself and give way to a direct and seemingly intuitive understanding of reality.  
In other words, we may recover from philosophy in order to see more clearly, just as we may recover from the obsession with photographic technique in order to appreciate what it is we are viewing.
In the Zen tradition, the intention is not to pretend to a clever insight, or to develop a unique awareness, but simply to see things exactly as they are.  I think some of our political leaders could benefit from that approach.  Giving attention to 'What needs to be done?' rather than 'How are we doing?' would be a good start. As would taking responsibility for decisions, rather than claiming to be just 'following the science', thereby lining up a potential scapegoat for when things go wrong.
Get your windows cleaned, not in order to admire their cleanliness, but in order to look through them. 

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