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A Man of Our Time

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?

Honderich in the flesh

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!

Follow me on Twitter: @LiamTheSaint



2 thoughts on “A Man of Our Time

  1. Very good, I had never heard of Honderich, but you are quite right, he is a genuine philosopher. Your post prompted me to look him up on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Honderich where I find he studied under A.J. Ayer (himself a very well-known philosopher) and works at University College London and was a visiting professor at CUNY and Yale.

    As I understand his philosophy of determinism (as described in Wikipedia), he divides freedom into two parts: the origination of our desires, and the capacity to act on our desires. The origination is subject to determinism: we desire what we desire as a result of complex neural functions. But the capacity to act on those desires – and the feeling of agency that results – is dependent on external factors. In some cases, we are able to act on our desires, and feel free. In other cases, we are not able to act on them, and feel non-free. This could be argued to be an account of freedom that is compatible with determinism.

    My characterization could be wrong (I haven’t read Honderich) but the account I’ve just sketched is elegant and believable. Certainly there are ways it could be made more complex (for example, by describing feedback loops in which our desires are influenced by our (conscious) desires, or where our desires are influenced by external factors (such as propaganda) which make it feel like we are not free to desire what we desire. But the general approach of trying to understand the problem by attacking the definition of freedom is a good one, and one that I would support.

    I find it fascinating that there is such a revulsion in the western world over the tactics engaged by the Palestinians (and others in similar circumstances). Watch Lawrence of Arabia, and you have a compelling account of how the British used similar tactics in WWI. Or watch Independence Day, and watch as the humans win the war by virtue of suicide bombers. Consider the arsenal of Cruise missiles, nukes and drones stocked and used by western nations, then reflect on Hamas rocket attacks against Israel. There is plenty of evidence to suggest our western society would – and does – engage in the same tactics if our backs were against the wall. Therefore saying the Palestinians are morally wrong is, at best, questionable.

    Posted by Stephen Downes | October 24, 2012, 10:57 am
    • I’m glad I was able to introduce you to someone new!

      The divisions of freedom you mentioned – origination and voluntariness – were around long before Honderich, and were the established ‘camps’ of determinism, separated into compatibilism and incompatiblism, essentially saying, as the names suggest, that determinism is compatible or incompatible with freedom depending on your definition of freedom. As you explain, he want further in trying to understand the consequences of determism, and in breaking free of the two traditional camps.

      Your explanation makes sense – if I am understanding it right, what truly matters is feeling free and able to do something that we feel we want to do. Regardless of whether or not determism is fully true, and our very desires are in fact pre-determined, what is important is that we feel free and able to do something – when we do not feel that way, we feel constrained and shackled by events we had no control over. Thank you for explaining that a little clearer(if I understood what you were saying correctly).

      All people fall to the same tactics in similar situations. People do what they feel they have to in order to achieve some greater goal, and as you said, our society would probably do the same in their place. I think what’s important is to distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘understandable’, however – simply because something is understandable given the circumstances does not make it right. It may not be wrong, for everything can in some sense be understood as morally justified from a certain perspective, but it is certainly not right.

      Posted by liamthesaint | October 26, 2012, 6:01 pm

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