Homunculus Fallacy, personal Identity and Pancakes

Every so often I think of a new way of explaining something. Lately, most of these haven’t quite been as credible as I might like (Sartre on ‘facticity’ and Frozen, Mr Potato from Peppa Pig) and this one, I guess, isn’t much better.

The homunculus fallacy is an error in reasoning that rears it’s head regularly in the Core Theme of the International Baccalaureate Philosophy course. Put most simply, it is committed when one seeks to explain a thing but makes use of the concept that is being (attempted) explained.

The claim that Descartes does little more than describe the mind as a littler version of me (a homunculus) inside my head is common but student’s often fail to see why this is such a problem.

The other day I was making pancakes with my two-year-old, and after we had put the eggs ad flour in the bowl I asked her what we should add next. “Pancakes” came the answer. “Daddy put the pancakes in now”.

This is exactly the problem Descartes (and many others) are being accused of. A definition of pancakes that uses ‘pancakes’ as one of the ingredients is clearly a problem. Likewise a definition of mind calls apon a notion of the very thing it is trying to explain must be treated with suspicion.

For more examples check out this post from ‘Fallacy a Day‘.

A great online Critical Thinking quiz…

Critical thinking quizzes are usually rubbish. In fact in some countries even the material provided by exam boards are rubbish. And I’m saying this not without sympathy. One only needs to watch a single episode of Family Guy, The Revolution will be Televised or Brasseye to be reminded that though errors in reasoning can be hilarious, they are not always clearly a clear case of one error. Of course occasionally they are (“it’s not a drug it’s a drink” etc), but more often one could make a case that a number of mistakes have been made (eg. Peter Griffon’s incredible ‘Mark Harmon’ speech).

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 21.33.30

Routledge’s companion website for Tracy Bowell and Gary Kemp’s Critical Thinking: A Concise Guide is not like this. It is clear. It is constructive and it is helpful. I haven’t yet managed to read my inspection copy, but if it is as clear as this site I will be adopting it right away. You can find it here: Critical Thinking: A Concise Guide.

Also remember I have my basic introduction called Errors In Reasoning here.The best bit is that I have added a blog of real life (and usually funny) errors that you can use to test yourself.

Another Game of Thrones IA

DAARIO: Everyone has a choice. Even slaves have a choice. Death or slavery.

DAENERYS: So what else can I do?

DAARIO: Marry me instead.

DAENERYS: Even if I wanted to do such an inadviseable thing, I couldn’t.

DAARIO: Why not? You’re our queen, you can do as you like.

DAENERYS: No. I can’t

DAARIO: Then you are the only person in Mereen who’s not free.

John Nolt on Moral Arguments

For those of you studying IB Philosophy, or taking Higher but interested in going beyond the simplicities of the course, John Nolt’s Environmental Ethics for the Long Term has an excellent section on philosophical arguments in ethics.

Section 2.2.1 has one of the best explanations of the “is/ought” fallacy I have ever read. Using the terms ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ to refer to premises that respectively contain or do not contain a sentiment of something being right or wrong, he uses the phrase ‘prescriptive reasoning’ to refer to an argument where (at least) one premise and the conclusion include some sort of moral valuing.

Of course an argument can be valid and sound if it contains no moral sentiments (1), and one which has ‘moral’ or ‘ought’ premises might lead to a valid and ‘ought’ type conclusion (2).

Example 1:

all volvo cars have a steering wheel

my car is a volvo

therefore my car has a steering wheel

Example 2:

one should intervene when one person is abusing another against the latter’s will

‘abusing another against their will’ is what happens in sex-trafficking

therefore you should be acting against sex-trafficking

Of course one might object to the ‘truth’ of each of the premises here, but if one did agree with both then it would commit you to the conclusion. This is an example of what Nolt calls ‘prescriptive reasoning’. The problem is when someone tries to move from purely ‘descriptive’ premises to a prescriptive conclusion. This is the is/ought fallacy. The example used by Nolt is the use of Social Darwinism by the Nazis, simply because the ‘strong’ or ‘fittest’ survive it certainly does not follow that one should act in a way to make this happen.

Allowing this ‘prescriptive reasoning’ to stand is not the same as believing it to be sound. In fact it can be particularly difficult to spot problematic premises. Consider the following:

We ought to eliminate suffering.

The only feasible way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate all sentient beings.

Therefore we ought to eliminate all sentient beings.*

*Nolt, J Environmental Ethics for the Long Term (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015) 39.

Nietzsche and Feminist Philosophy

In class this week I alluded to the belief that to take Nietzsche’s comments about women (in the GM or indeed any other text) as merely the expressions of a ‘man of his time’ was a mistake. In fact this (mistaken) view is exactly the one attributed to Walter Kaufmann by Kelly Oliver and Marilyn Pearsall in the introduction to their Feminist Interpretations of Nietzsche.
In addition to this, Nietzsche’s popular ‘bumper sticker’ reputation is that of a misogynist and of course it is not hard to find passages that, at a first glance, might support this reading. At the same time there a feminist philosophers that herald the famous German as an ally in their project, so things cannot be quite so obvious.In fact the more one reads Nietzsche, the less obvious this reputation’s deservedness becomes. It does certainly seem strange that a writer who put an unreasonable amount of thought into his metaphors elsewhere would use and celebrate feminine ‘birthing’ metaphors so readily.
Oliver and Pearsall helpfully separate two distinct, but not unrelated, areas of feminist Nietzsche studies. The first is concerning Nietzsche’s actual view of women, whether he is being ironic, hateful or something else in his comments about women, and the second investigates whether Nietzsche promises feminists helpful philosophical tools. At first glance, of course, there are a number of promising or fruitful considerations. In his denial that reason is faultless, objective and absolute or that ‘Truths’ (and even language) are something to do with power or even oppression Nietzsche must at the very least be interesting to feminist philosophy. The genealogical method itself is worth mentioning here. Further, as one credited with the ‘return to the body’ in Western Philosophy, the intrigue and promise of Nietzsche can surely only grow.
This book only arrived on my desk this week, and I look forward to reading it. For now it may be most beneficial as students to hear a little about the various view expounded, so you might think about them as we read the texts.
At the more ‘postmodern’ end of the scale in terms of reading Nietzsche, O&P describe Kofman as finding Nietzsche significant as she see him as denying the category of women ‘as such’. Likewise they interpret Derrida as finding Nietzsche refusing to understand sex (or perhaps gender) as something involving two polar opposites, whilst Higgins finds Nietzsche’s view of women “enabling” (10).
On the other hand, some readers find a thinly veiled parallel between male/female and master/slave morality respectively. Singer even sees that all women are ‘good for’ is mothering overmen and are even understood as “embodiments of ressentiment” due to their lack of manliness.
Tirrel reads Nietzsche as foreshadowing de Beauvoir in thinking it legitimate to talk of ‘woman’ not due to some ontological (natural) difference but because of the way cultures ‘create’ them. Wininger considers an ethical response to Nietzsche and adjudicates that feminist ethics must reject both slave and master moralities wherever it finds them.
This looks to be a brilliant collection of essays and could give rise to a very good IA or EE.

IB Philosophy IA ideas from my SQA classes…

One of the best bits about the IB Philosophy course is that it keeps philosophy ‘real’. I don’t mean that to sound quite as ‘street’ as it does but the arrangements ensure that the academic side will never become too separated from the real world.

Unfortunately SQA (Scottish) Philosophy does not have this link, although there are plenty of good teachers out there trying to forge it, and doing this despite massive time pressures. As someone who believes that philosophy too separtate from ‘real’ life is just plain boring I try to ensure that my students get this link better than their examinations authority.

Every year I ask my exam and core classes to find their own examples of musicians, filmmakers and artists ‘doing philosophy’. The sources they bring are invariably brillliant. Here are a few:


IB Philosophy IA on the ontological argument?

I’ll come back and add to this at some point but if you’re studying IB Philosophy of Religion it should be clear enough…

Richard White’s Nietzsche

One of the things I always spend less time than I should talking about in class is the different interpretations of Nietzsche’s Genealogy. This is partly tactical, as it is more than possible to get a 7 without doing so but it is also because, I know the students often struggle with it.

Now that I’ve revealed myself to be an awful teacher who is afraid of a challenge (and that a proper covering of this area would take a whole term, perhaps more), I’m going to make an attempt to rectify my failure.I do so with the caveat that what follows is a gross over simplifcation, but at the same time is about the right depth for an IB Philosophy student.

The best place for a student to start on this would be to listen to Brian Leiter on Philosophy Bites. Leiter is, in a way, at the naturalistic ‘end of the scale’ of Nietzsche scholarship, belivineg that the best way to read the German’s work is by … At the other end of this scale there are what have been commonly referred to as ‘post-modernist thinkers’ and I plan to post on these later.

Though Richard White is certainly towards the latter ‘end of the scale’ it wouldn’t be fair to say he was right at the end of it. In Schacht (Ed.) Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality (London: University of California,1994) he offers a brief interpretation of the Genealogy.

White thinks that we read Nietzsche best if we understand slaves and masters as ‘modes of being’ not as historiacal actualities. He defends this view by refering to the opening sections of the work where Nietzsche is highly critical of the ‘origins’ accounts of the ‘english psychologists’ amongst others. Having read the introduction, White suggests, it would be strange for the reader to accept what appears to be another ‘origins’ account simply because the origins are not as palatable. He encourages the reader to keep an ‘ironic distance’ from such a straighforward interpretation. That ‘slave’ and ‘master’ refer to ‘basic modalities of human existence’ is further supported with a referenct to the intruiging claim in the Preface that we must attempt to calculate the value of the values we have.

It is well known and widely agreed that Nietzsche has a concern with ‘perspective’ and White’s interpretation is related to the previous points. White understands ‘slave’ and ‘master’ as two ways of looking at the world. If this is true it does make sense for us to read Nietzsche as trying to inspire a ‘recollection’ of ‘mastery’ in human psychology, as White does. This position also seems to alleviate or simplify the question that is asked by most students on finished the Genealogy: how, then, should I live my life?

Quite consistently White reads the forst essay as a ‘mythical prehistory’ and so Nietzsche’s philology becomes understood as evidence for a shift in psychological states. To this he adds that Beyond Good and Evil seems to suggest that parents pass a tendency for either to their offspring – a doctrine rather similiar to contemporary readings of the Fall. This leads us to the ‘mixed blood’ that Nietzsche finds so distressing and predicts is capable of the extinction of the human race.


This interpretation fits very well with Nietzsche’s parenthetical, and seemingly passing, comment that

a prehistory which, by the way, exists at all times or could possibly re-occur (II§9).

This of course leads us to the question of action or what the ‘master’ should mean to us, Nietzsche’s readers. White interprets ‘slavish’ psychology to refer to any arrangement where individualism is impeded. He uses Nietzsche’s own examples of belief in God and science, claiming that the common emphasis on objectivity (both believed and sought) leads to what a psychologist might refer to as an eternal locus of identity. White claims Nietzsche thinks this is the position that ends in nihilism as it entails only a willing not to will. On the other hand a true ‘master’ would be characterised by ‘pure willing’, soveriegnty and autonomy. Finally this requires the complete rejection of teleology and embracing ‘artistc self determination’. This account is supported with reference to the ‘new philsophers’ of BGE. To become masterly we must

put…an end to that grusome dominion of nonsense and accident that has so far been called “history”. (BGE 203)*

*White R, The Return of the Master in Schacht (Ed.) Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality (London: University of California,1994) 75.