Ted Honderich is not one of those larger-than-life philosophers we can only read about in books. He is a man of the modern era, born in 1933 in a small Ontario village. Raised by devoutly religious Mennonite and Calvinist parents, the questions of existence – why are we here and what does it mean to be here? – plagued him, setting him on philosophy as his life’s path.
Still, not being of Ancient Greece or Imperial Germany doesn’t mean he isn’t a real philosopher. Honderich has attempted to provide answers to some of the most deeply rooted questions of all Western philosophy, theorizing on determinism and free will, the nature of consciousness, and the morality of terrorism. It is this last idea that has gotten Honderich in so much trouble. In face of Neo-Zionist Israeli expansionism and ethnic cleansing since 1968 war, Honderich claims, Palestinians had a moral right to resist with international terrorism. That assertion by Honderich – who married a Jewish woman, has Jewish children, and publicly supports Israel’s right to exist – has earned him plentiful accusations of anti-semitism, leading to some of his lectures being well-attended by riot police to head off any potential violence. And who says philosophy can’t be interesting?
Still, his ideas on politics notwithstanding, what interests me most are his ideas on metaphysics; specifically, determinism. While I will go into more depth during our presentation, what it essentially boils down to is this: traditionally, deterministic philosophers divide into two camps, those who believe determinism is reconcilable with free will, and those who do not. Honderich favoured a third way – while, I’ll admit, I don’t really understand what it is in the slightest. It focuses less on the explicit meaning of determinism than on its consequences; that is, it seeks to avoid the state of dismay we feel if we truly accept determinism, by combining the idea that everything is predetermined by past events with the idea that we can shape our own future when we have an idea of what we want that future to look like. Or something.
As you might have realized, I’m not quite sure what Honderich is trying to say, but I hope I eventually do – I’ve long been fascinated by determinism(though without realizing that was what it was), and the idea that events are in fact totally caused by those that have come before – and that, by extension, a being with complete omniscience could entirely reasonably be able to predict everything about tomorrow simply by virtue of knowing everything about today. It plays into our common cultural notion of fate – the idea that something, be it love, a chance meeting, or some tragedy is simply ‘the way it was meant to be’. Whether or not this is true, and the implications of that answer, play into the very meaning of what it is to live.
Even if I can’t quite make out what Honderich’s philosophy is trying to say – yet – he is a modern philosopher well worth studying – if not for the philosophy, then for the controversy, for the riot police, and for his scandal plagued past(think university professor and undergraduates). Stay tuned!
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