In the Critics this Week

Colin McGinn on Philosophy of Mind, Alain de Botton on James Miller, and Will Self on an Indian banq

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, ten pages of which are devoted to a philosophy special, our Critic at Large is Colin McGinn, professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami, who surveys the current state of play in the philosophy of mind and consciousness. Although McGinn concedes, in the spirit Descartes, the irrefutable existence of the self, he cautiously downplays the scope of the intellect: "Human intelligence is a local, contingent, temporal, practical and expendable feature of life on earth - an incremental adaptation based on earlier forms of intelligence that no one would regard as faintly omniscient." In Socratic vein, McGinn asserts: "There is more ignorance ... than knowledge."

In Books, Alain de Botton reviews The Philosophical Life: 12 Great Thinkers and the Search for Wisdom, from Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. What, says de Botton, sets these seminal thinkers apart is that they pursue salient experience rather than intellectual vanity: "Miller presents 12 philosophers, great names including Socrates, Seneca, Montaigne, Kant and Nietzsche. What draws Miller to them is that they are all, in different ways, utterly unlike what a modern philosophical academic is expected to be. They don't want to be clever, they want to know how to live. They want to be wise." Moreover, de Botton notes that Miller's prose is intended for the layman, not his fellow professionals: "He is to be commended for leaving behind the sterile practices of his colleagues and speaking to civilian readers."

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire speaks to Professor Charles Taylor about his latest work, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. The book responds to the need in modern western societies for political structures that accomodate the full breadth of moral and religious diversity: "The original model of secularism was one in which a very dominant religious group had to fight with other kinds of tendencies. That was the situation in France in the 19th century but doesn't at all describe modern-day Canada or the UK. The kind of secularism [advanced in the book] answers the question,'"How do we live together?'"

Also in Books: Giles Fraser reviews Simon Critchley's The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. Fraser notes Critchley's atheism, and his argument that Christianity's perennial relevance lies in its alter ego, politics: "Modern political discourse is sublimated theology. And the only way properly to get at the unspoken drivers of much political philosophy is to recognise them as expressions of theological desire". Other reviews: Edward Skidelsky on Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation by Richard Sennett; and Jennie Erdal on Humean influences in her forthcoming novel, The Missing Shade of Blue. PLUS: Sarah Waters pays tribute to Angela Carter on the 20th anniversary of her death.

Elsewhere in Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Antonia Quirke on Steven Spielberg; Kate Mossman on Paul Weller; and Helen Lewis on Contre Jour. PLUS: Will Self's "Real Meals".

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Stanley Johnson's Diary

The author on iguana burgers, cricket with Boris – and what Russia really knew about Brexit.

My week began with the annual Earl Spencer v Boris Johnson cricket match, held at Charles Spencer’s Althorp House in Northamptonshire. This is a truly wonderful event in a wonderful setting. Boris’s team has not yet notched up a victory, even though we once fielded Kevin Pietersen. This year, we actually came close to winning. The Johnson team made 127. Charles Spencer’s, with one over left, was on 123. It was a nail-biting finish, and they finally beat us with only two balls left to bowl.

Clapping for Britain

The day after the match, I was invited to lunch at the Travellers Club to meet Alden McLaughlin, the premier of the Cayman Islands, and other members of his government who were travelling with him in London. I discovered that his vision for the islands’ future extended far beyond the financial sector, central though that is. He was, for example, proud that the Cayman Islands – like other UK overseas territories – contribute enormously to the UK’s biological diversity.

“The blue iguana is endemic to the Cayman Islands,” McLaughlin explained, “and it is one of the great environmental success stories of our time. It has been brought back from the brink of extinction.” If the blue iguana is on the way to recovery, it seems that the green iguana is superabundant. “We must have a million of them,” he said. “They are getting everywhere. We are working on a strategy to deal with them.” I told him that I once had an iguana burger in Honduras. He shook his head. “We don’t eat iguanas in the Caymans.”

Premier McLaughlin was also able to offer a useful insight into Britain’s current Brexit-related tensions. In 1962, the Cayman Islands were forced to decide whether to stay with Jamaica, as Jamaica became independent, or to stick with Britain as a separate crown colony. “We decided by acclamation,” McLaughlin told me. “One side clapped loudest; the other side clapped longest. The loudest side won. We stayed with Britain.” Like the latest Johnson-Spencer cricket match, it was a close-run thing.

Light touch

Last week, we went to the first night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and, in the course of an inspiring evening, heard Igor Levit, born in Nizhny Novgorod, give us a haunting version of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. There were mutterings afterwards that he shouldn’t have chosen Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as his encore, but if Levit meant this as a political statement – and he probably did – it was done with the lightest of touches. He doesn’t paint his message in huge capital letters on the side of a bus.

An open goal

My sister, Hilary, who emigrated to Australia in 1969, has been visiting. We spent two days on Exmoor in the middle of the week, on the family farm where we grew up, before coming back to London for the launch of my 25th book and tenth novel. Kompromat is a satirical political thriller that aims to recount the real story behind both the election of Donald Trump as US president and the pro-Brexit vote in last year’s referendum. There is a quotation from the former London mayor Ken Livingstone on the front cover: “It’s brilliant and, who knows, maybe it’s true.”

In interviews, I have been asked whether I really believe that the Russians might have been behind both Trump’s victory and Brexit. My response is simple. In the US, the idea of Russian interference in the election is being taken very seriously. Over here, we don’t seem to be bothered. I asked myself, when I started writing Kompromat in February, why wouldn’t the Russians have taken a shot at an open goal?

My fictional British prime minister, Jeremy Hartley, is a deeply patriotic man, convinced that the only way to take Britain out of the EU is to call a referendum – with a little help from his “friends”. But I don’t want to give too much away. Channel 4 has bought the rights and will be programming six half-hour episodes.

All in the family

Hilary and I went to Wimbledon for the ladies’ final as the guests of her old friend David Spearing. Usually referred to by tennis addicts as “the man in the black hat”, he first became a Wimbledon steward in 1974 and, even though he has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 50 years, he never misses a season. As the longest-serving steward, he gets to sit (wearing his famous hat) in the “family box” at Wimbledon, the one where close relatives of the players are invariably placed.

We met Spearing in the officials’ buttery during one of the intervals (Venus Williams had just been walloped by Garbiñe Muguruza). Later, as he walked us back to our seats, people kept stopping to ask him for a selfie. “I’ve been on duty in the ‘family box’ for 20 years,” he explained. “They all know me, from the TV or in person, seeing me sitting there hour after hour. The first time Andy Murray won the championship, he climbed up into the box to hug his girlfriend. I noticed he had missed his mother, who was sitting over to the side. ‘Don’t forget about Mum, Andy,’ I told him!” 

Stanley Johnson’s novel “Kompromat” is published  by Oneworld

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder