This just in from Tübingen…

“I’m surprised,” said the German philosopher whose name I’ve forgotten but next to whom I was walking towards the ice-cream parlour, “how little argument there is here.”

I have to admit it – had he chosen his parallel sessions unluckily, he could easily have been left with the notion that the ESPMH is an argument-free zone: I, too, was struck by that.  And anyone who thought or dared hope that principlism might one day fade would have been disappointed, too – it seems to be alive and well.  I agreed with the claim of one paper that I heard that we ought to move away from B&C – but not with the suggestion that we ought to move towards another principlist system.

But enough carping – every conference has papers that don’t impress, and contributors that don’t impress either; but every confernce also has papers that are interesting, challenging, and provocative.  The same applies here.  I particularly enjoyed Freida Simonstein’s paper on IVF and hESC research in Israel – it was a real eye-opener.

There was a number of other papers to which I’d have objections, but to which I’d object for the right reasons.  Michael Norup and Peter Rossel from Copenhagen were suggesting that Experimental Philosophy (X-Phi) is capable of providing insights into the way that bioethical thought gets done and the way that the public thinks about morality, taking as its jumping-offf point the Knobe Effect.  (Bastard!  How can he have a phenomenon named after him already?  He only got his PhD three years ago, grumble grumble…)  I have to say I don’t buy the thesis that X-Phi can teach us much – I have yet to lose my suspicion of X-Phi generally – because, as far as I can see, it’s central to philosophy that it regulate, rather than describe, what we think, and empiricism can’t obviously help us out much here.  To rely on empirical findings strikes me as non-philosophical at best; I suspect, though, that there’s something anti-philosophical about too heavy a reliance on the strategy.  And on a practical level, you can produce all the empirical evidence you want about the way that people do think, and it won’t help you at all to resolve a dispute.

But let’s not get too gloomy: Jan Payne and Pavel Martasek from Prague were suggesting that metaethics is withering, but that bioethics can revivify the discipline, they were also suggesting that bioethics as a discipline reflects a shift in morality from an “ethics of temptation” to an “ethics of dilemma”.  This seems like too strong a claim in the first place, and too vague a claim in the second (or, to the extent that it’s clear, based on a false distinction) – but still, the paper provided food for thought.

I was also impressed with Diego Gracia’s plenary.  He was advancing the claim that ethics – qua universalistic, rational pursuit of the good – is a creation of Western culture, but that this is threatened by a crisis in rationality from the last century or so.  I recognise a lot of Heidegger in this, with a sniff of Husserl and a couple of PoMo thinkers, too.  Gracia wanted us to accept that the way we think is changing, and that philosophy must change, too; for him, we’re in a period of crisis that is comparable to that which led Socrates to critique of Athenian society.  Once again, I’m not so sure – for reasons comparable to those that make me hesitiate about X-Phi: philosophy isn’t about reacting to thought, but regulating it as a critical friend.  It aspires to timelessness, even if it knows that that timelessness is impossible.  Nevertheless, Gracia’s paper is one that’s left me mulling over a few things that were previously unconsidered.

Away from the papers, the conference was tremendously well-run, and there was a really great atmosphere.  Full credit has to go to the staff of EK Universität Tübingen for their organsiational skills, and to the students who kept things running on the ground.  It was a tremendous show all round.

Enough of me: how was it for you?  Comments about highlights and lowlights welcome…

  • Keith Tayler

    Re X-Phi

    Is this not a case for that terrible stuff ’commonsense’. For sure philosophy is not an empirical study but nor is it pure reason. X-Phi is a fashion that will pass into psychology, its obvious home. (Given the empirical foundations of much of bioethics we might also hope that it will pass on to the ‘sciences’) But if on the way X-Phi reminds some philosophers that in the real world people think differently to them and will no doubt continue to do so, it will be no bad thing. As MacIntyre reminds us in the opening of After Virtue, armchairs are useless philosophical instruments.

  • Iain Brassington

    Sort of. There’s an X-Phi quasi-manifesto about getting out of the armchair, though, which – to me – looks like an attempt to replace commonsense about the man on the Clapham Omnibus with data about his real, fleshy, equivalent. And it’s that that makes me a bit worried. Call it psychology or anthropology, but it ain’t philosophy; at most, it’s preparing the ground for philosophy. (I’ve hinted similarly in an earlier post.) Like you, I think it’s a bit faddish; maybe it has a place, but it’s not the revolution that some people think it to be.

    Nor am I entirely in agreement with MacIntyre about the use of armchairs. They’re perhaps not to be trusted too far – but I’m not burning mine just yet.