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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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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