Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Category: environment

Why it is (philosophically) OK to like the Olympics

I realise that it has been a while since my last post.  A number of things, including a forthcoming job interview, have conspired against me doing an update.  Another reason is that the blogging world appears, like most other media, to be enthralled with what a certain dandelion-headed classicist describes as the ‘Geiger-counter of olympo-mania’. I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and didn’t want to update until I had a few things to say about it.

In a previous post on the current state of politics, I had a bit of a rant about Cameron’s concept of ‘Englishness’ and how the conservative party is claiming political currency from connecting a range of things (the Olympics, the jubilee, the royal wedding, etc.) in a particular way that makes any person who rejects any element of this picture appear to be an unpatriotic curmudgeon.  One of the things that I mentioned there was the rather vague notion of the ‘Olympic spirit’ as representing certain values.  One of the things that concerned me about this was how it was presented as something very English, but also something that the whole globe should aspire to.  The obvious notes of imperialism in this are rather alarming.  There are also other Olympic concerns: for example, the Olympics will have a considerable carbon footprint associated with large construction projects and with flying athletes, trainers and spectators in from all over the world.  There is also a worry that there is an element of bread and circuses in all of this – we are distracted from complaining about the obvious injustices in our current society by big flag-waving events that get people all excited.

However, when I was expressing all of this to my partner the other day, he rightly pointed out that while anger has an important role in motivating political action, an angry leftie can sometimes be as irritating a beast as many of his or her opponents who froth at the mouth in the pages of the Daily Mail.  There could, in some circumstances, be a certain degree of hypocrisy in complaining about the exploitation of the Olympics for tory political capital.  After all, we should not pretend that a government of different colours would not do exactly the same thing. We are all watching events from a certain perspective.  Attempting to say anything about large-scale national occasions without one’s own political views structuring one’s observations would be pretty much impossible.  I still think there are major concerns with the way the Olympic stuff has come into conservative rhetoric, but that is a worry about the rhetoric itself than about the fact that they are talking about the Olympics.  So I have become more positive. On the other hand, this positivity should not turn into something uncritical, as I will try to explain.

First of all, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was an absolute masterpiece.  It did a very impressive job of reclaiming the Olympics for the people of Britain.  Rather than the usual bland displays of national magnificence, it was virtually an essay on national identity.  It helped suggest ways in which we can be patriotic while being outward and forward looking, and acknowledging the troubled, divided and divisive aspects of our culture and our history.  The unexpurgated rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’ was interesting here, as well as the much discussed celebration of the NHS, the inclusion of the wind-rush and the suffragists,  and the portrayal of workers and capitalists in a powerful evocation of our ‘dark satanic mills’.  I could mention a lot of other things here, but the point is that this was deeply embedded in history and tradition, while at the same time looking at where our problems lie and how the country might be truly progressive.  The ceremony was magnificently subversive while not for a moment appearing to undermine the joy of the occasion.  This is deeply significant: it allows us to own an occasion which for so much of its build up suggested a celebration of values that are alien or at least problematic for many people.  It will also give cultural and political theorists plenty of material to think about for quite some time.

Returning to the ecological concerns, I think that those are indeed a worry.  Any event on this global scale is going to have a significant environmental impact, and no matter how much we attempt to keep things as green as possible, such measures will be little more than token gestures.  I have some friends in the green movement who believe that this is enough to warrant a complete dismissal of the Olympics.  This is, I admit, a complicated one for me.  However, the scale of ecological damage caused by the Olympics is dwarfed by the havoc wreaked by war, irresponsible deforestation and agriculture techniques and the activities of many global corporations whose activities are both unecological and inhumane.  This is not supposed to count as an excuse – obviously the fact that hitting you in the face is nothing compared to the mafia murdering you does not suggest that hitting you in the face is a reasonable thing to do.  Nor am I attempting to argue that the Olympics will have a dramatic causal effect in preventing war, altering our current economic practices and so on (the empirical evidence would be hard to find, and the involvement of MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola and the like count directly against this).

Rather, I am interested in the symbolic value of the Olympics in representing the fact that we are all part of one world, that we have physical bodies that are vulnerable to our environments, and that the people in other parts of the globe who will suffer most as a result of climate change are real people, with their own narratives that we can engage with.  Lenin was not a ground breaking philosopher, but he did make a very prescient observation.  He argued that one obstacle to the overthrowing of capitalism would be globalisation.  As this occurred, he thought that the alienated workforce would be shifted to poorer countries in the world, while those in wealthy nations would become increasingly part of the bourgeoisie.  Ordinary people in wealthy nations would not observe the suffering and exploitation that went into what they use and consume, and this would encourage a comfortable complacency on their part.  Unlike in Marx’s day, the oppressed masses would not be so much on the doorstep that it would take an extreme effort of will to ignore them.

This is not simply the case with workers exploited in production, as Lenin argues.  It is also true of environmental crises.  The Olympics does help to highlight people from these countries, and their experiences, although this could be done a lot more.  For example, Tuvalu is a Pacific island nation between Australia and Hawaii.  It is a former British protectorate with a population of around 11,000 people.  They entered an Olympic team for the first time in the Beijing Olympics.  Their team consists of two competitors in athletic events and one weightlifter.  At its highest point, Tuvalu is 4.6 meters above sea level.  As a result of climate change, it is likely that much of the country will be submerged.  The dramatic effects on the country’s economy is liable to have severe effects on funding available for sport and leisure activities, and the fact that land will be at a premium (with low-lying flat land particularly at risk) is likely to have a detrimental effects on the availability of sport and training facilities.  This is only one small isolated example – more media attention on the stories of those athletes competing in the games could really help to highlight the fact that our activities in one part of the world cannot be separated from the fates of people elsewhere.  To consistently proceed by weighing up costs and benefits, be they economic or ecological, in a utilitarian fashion carries with it the danger of making us small minded and parochial.

All this ‘one world’ stuff brings me back to the idea of the ‘Olympic spirit’ or ‘Olympic values’.  I have mentioned my worries about imperialism here.  It strikes me that any of the vague notions that we have about such values are not specifically British: although concepts of ‘sportsmanship’, ‘fair play’ and so on are often part of the national story that we tell ourselves, I don’t see much evidence that they are things that we exemplify more than anyone else.  Other aspects of the ‘Olympic values’ business have a lot to do with cosmopolitanism and open and equal dialogue across the world.  We are good at some aspects of this (the BBC World Service is, I think, a good example) but in other respects our horizons can be painfully narrow.  So let’s put to bed the idea that there is, in reality, some fundamental link between Britishness and Olympianism in a way that privileges us over the rest of the world.

Let’s focus in on an aspect that is frequently considered to be a very British thing – the idea of sportsmanship.  This idea is in itself a very complicated one. People often talk about a ‘golden age’ of sportsmanship, but we should be suspicious of golden ages: what often appears to be golden is the artificial sepia tint of a sentimental instagram homage.  Some of the historical associations of sportsmanship are masculine, imperialistic and militaristic. It also has a lot to do with class.  Sportsmanship is traditionally thought to be a feature of the ‘gentleman amateur’.  He is a certain sort of chap: a chap who can afford to participate in sporting activities without having to earn a living through them, a chap who exemplifies the military virtue of chivalry (or something very like it): in short, he is the sort of chap who is fit to run an empire.  It is also worth noting that in football, there was an offence of ‘unsportsmanlike behaviour’ that was only recently altered to ‘unsporting behaviour’ in recognition of the fact that some women are actually pretty good at football too.

But I do not want to do away with sportsmanship (on reflection, let’s call it ‘sportingness’) all that quickly.  It has been a fantastic experience to watch so many of our athletes winning medals over the past couple of days.  One of the particular delights of this has been the sheer disbelief and humility that many of them have demonstrated.  They have been delighted just to be involved in an event of this kind, and generous in sharing the credit for their success with many other people.

The point here is both the old cliché that there is more to sport than winning, and also more than merely following the rules.  In fact, one of the reasons why ‘Olympic values’ are so difficult to formulate in a clear way is their resistance to being constrained within a system of rules.  We usually think of games as essentially rule-governed activities, but anyone with a fleeting acquaintance with Wittgenstein will know that ‘rule-governed activities’ are rather complicated things.  I mentioned the footballing offence of ‘unsporting behaviour’.  This is an interesting example because it is a non-rule masquerading as a rule.  I recall an anecdote, I’m not sure if it has any truth in it, about a guy being booked for unsporting behaviour after catching the ball in his turban, running toward the goal with it and heading it over the line.  There was no specific rule against this: it would be impossible to devise rules to cover all eventualities.  The ‘unsporting behaviour’ ‘rule’ exists so that a responsible well-placed judge, who is immersed in the game and understands (not simply in a rule-based way) what the game is really about, can use their practical wisdom to determine when players fail to honour that.  It is appropriate, given the home of the original Olympics, that this notion is more at home in Platonic or Aristotelian virtue ethics than in systems based on rules.  It is also interesting that while most rules of a game are in a sense morally neutral, in the sense that they are only rules because one decides that they are for the sake of that game, sportingness while being specific to a sporting arena appears to be more strongly binding, and to transcend different sporting activities.  We might say that it is a moral virtue specific to the sporting arena, or that it is a reflection of a broader more unified virtue through sport.  It cannot however be easily articulated, since knowledge of it is a kind of practical knowledge based on experience of sport, and not a principle that someone with no understanding of sport could simply learn and judge.

In some cases, the player might be faced with a dilemma: many famous anecdotes about ‘sportsmanship’ involve someone sacrificing an advantage to their team or nation for the sake of the broader value or integrity of the sport.  Loyalty is of course another kind of virtue.  It might not always be easy to say that the sporting thing to do is always straightforwardly the right one.  In a sense the player is left standing alone, isolated from the thousands or millions of eyes that are watching her, with her own freedom.  To privilege one virtue over another is already to presuppose that a side has been taken.  It is perhaps no surprise that football seems to have been so popular amongst existentialist philosophers.

But what I broadly want to say is that once we start to think in these terms, notions such as the ‘Olympic values’ may not be so mysterious, in that their inarticulability is a function of their involvement with practical activity.  Perhaps I might also have started illuminate some sense in which what appears to be a trivial sporting contest can have deeper kinds of significance.  Like the broader history of our culture so vividly portrayed in the opening ceremony, aspects of the ‘Olympic values’ may be complex and troubled in their history.  But in both cases, this does not mean that those things cannot be enjoyed.  What is often irritating about them is the uncritical and dangerous way that these ideas are used.  So I do not need to be a left-wing Olympic grump – I can enjoy the influx of medals with a clear conscience – just as long as I don’t need to run anywhere or lift anything.



Today is beautifully sunny.  I just completed a draft of an article on Mill and Wordsworth on the appreciation of nature, which has makes the sunshine even more golden than it otherwise would be.  The next piece of work I have set myself to do is on Kantian accounts on similar themes.  As always with Kant, I am rather daunted.  I decided to take my copy of the Critique of Judgment down to the lake and settle on a fishing platform by the side of the water where the sun’s light danced through the trees, knowing but not caring that I would be easily distracted.





§ 61. Of the objective purposiveness of Nature

We have on transcendental principles good ground to assume a subjective purposiveness in nature, in its particular laws, in reference to its comprehensibility by human Judgement and to the possibility of the connexion of particular experiences in a system. This may be expected as possible in many products of nature, which, as if they were devised quite specially for our Judgement, contain a specific form conformable thereto; which through their manifoldness and unity serve at once to strengthen and to sustain the mental powers (that come into play in the employment of this faculty); and to which therefore we give the name of beautiful forms…

I tried to think as streaks of sunlight flashed along the rushes in time to their motion in the water.  A silver-blue damselfly resembled an Art Nouveau brooch.  Gradually I became aware that every the space between the rushes was punctuated with them. I noticed that there were two different types, the first striped with blue and black along the length of its body, the other looking like two azure dots connected with the thinnest filament of black that seemed to serve as its abdomen.  It was difficult to believe that those of the latter kind were actually living things.  After a while, the females, more subdued in their colours and markings, started to come into focus, settling on rushes and forming mating pairs with the males, the two bodies often flying attached through the air, forming a single eight-winged form among the translucent thistle seeds that drifted over the lake.

…But that the things of nature serve one another as means to purposes, and that their possibility is only completely intelligible through this kind of causality—for this we have absolutely no ground in the universal Idea of nature, as the complex of the objects of sense. In the above-mentioned case, the representation of things, because it is something in ourselves, can be quite well thought a priori as suitable and useful for the internally purposive determination of our cognitive faculties; but that purposes, which neither are our own nor belong to nature (for we do not regard nature as an intelligent being), could or should constitute a particular kind of causality, at least a quite special conformity to law,—this we have absolutely no a priori reason for presuming. Yet more, experience itself cannot prove to us the actuality of this; there must then have preceded a rationalising subtlety which only sportively introduces the concept of purpose into the nature of things, but which does not derive it from Objects or from their empirical cognition. To this latter it is of more service to make nature comprehensible according to analogy with the subjective ground of the connexion of our representations, than to cognise it from objective grounds…

A trick of the light drew my eye to what I thought was one of the damselfly, but which on inspection was motion below the surface of the lake just at the foot of the platform, which was suddenly alive with hundreds and thousands of tiny translucent fish all following the same motion in swarming clouds.  Casting my eye further out, the lake was a heaving unified mass of little fish, stretching out as far as I could see before the underwater horizon where light below the surface was subsumed in the rippling reflection of the cloudless sky.  Larger brown fish, still only an inch or two long, cut swathes through these crowds.  I knew that further out there would be much larger fish, glassy eyed, hovering in the inaccessible waters at the centre.

…Further, objective purposiveness, as a principle of the possibility of things of nature, is so far removed from necessary connexion with the concept of nature, that it is much oftener precisely that upon which one relies to prove the contingency of nature and of its form. When, e.g. we adduce the structure of a bird, the hollowness of its bones, the disposition of its wings for motion and of its tail for steering, etc., we say that all this is contingent in the highest degree according to the mere nexus effectivus of nature, without calling in the aid of a particular kind of causality, namely that of purpose (nexus finalis). In other words, nature, considered as mere mechanism, could have produced its forms in a thousand other ways without stumbling upon the unity which is in accordance with such a principle. It is not in the concept of nature but quite apart from it that we can hope to find the least ground a priori for this…

The reflections of gulls swooped over the surface of the water, part solid animal, and partly constituted by the currents of air upon which they glided.  A water boatman dragged himself, upside down, under the surface.  He lives in an inverted world, on a viscous blue-painted floor, below a dark stony sky.  Birds swim far beneath in another medium, while fish glide and float above.

…Nevertheless the teleological act of judgement is rightly brought to bear, at least problematically, upon the investigation of nature; but only in order to bring it under principles of observation and inquiry according to the analogy with the causality of purpose, without any pretence to explain it thereby. It belongs therefore to the reflective and not to the determinant judgement. The concept of combinations and forms of nature in accordance with purposes is then at least one principle more for bringing its phenomena under rules where the laws of simply mechanical causality do not suffice. For we bring in a teleological ground, where we attribute causality in respect of an Object to the concept of an Object, as if it were to be found in nature (not in ourselves); or rather when we represent to ourselves the possibility of the Object after the analogy of that causality which we experience in ourselves, and consequently think nature technically as through a special faculty. If we did not ascribe to it such a method of action, its causality would have to be represented as blind mechanism. If, on the contrary, we supply to nature causes acting designedly, and consequently place at its basis teleology, not merely as a regulative principle for the mere judging of phenomena, to which nature can be thought as subject in its particular laws, but as a constitutive principle of the derivation of its products from their causes; then would the concept of a natural purpose no longer belong to the reflective but to the determinant Judgement. Then, in fact, it would not belong specially to the Judgement (like the concept of beauty regarded as formal subjective purposiveness), but as a rational concept it would introduce into natural science a new causality, which we only borrow from ourselves and ascribe to other beings, without meaning to assume them to be of the same kind with ourselves…

There is a tremendous splash among the rushes on my right, and a lovely Old English sheepdog flops into the lake, fracturing the surface into miniature tidal waves.  Birds and fish scatter, wheeling in the sky and forming new eddies in the water.  He paddles round towards me, poking his nose inquisitively out of the water like a baby seal.  He bounds amicably onto the platform and greets me, energised by the cold water saturating his fur.  He shakes himself. Water droplets land on my warm skin, and punctuate Kant’s long sentences.

Romanticism (June 15th 2012)

Thinks it is sad how the word ‘romantic’ has taken on the kinds of associations that it has over the past hundred years or so. It has come to be connected to a particular kind of ‘love’, narrowly defined, between two people, taken apart from a community, and turned in upon each other. First there is the individual, then there is the couple, and then, perhaps, a very small nuclear family. ‘Roman…ce’ or ‘romanticism’, with the tonnes of expenditure and consumer waste that it creates is part of the perpetuation of this structure.

‘If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to all others, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.’
Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

It is also bound up with fairy tales, and with archetypes that real human beings constantly fail to measure up to. Even where ‘romantic’ is taken in a wider sense than the common use, it is often used to refer to what is unrealistic, what belongs in some fanciful world that lies beyond or above our own, and has little to do with what is really going on. Hence we have the positive ‘Ooooh, he’s so romantic’, alongside the negative ‘Isn’t that suggestion / political programme / view of humanity rather romantic?’

The romantic movement in art and literature was concerned in many cases with the real situations of people, and with what was present and possible in reality. ‘Jerusalem’ was not a distant land, or a promise of the next life, but rather something that we could build right here if we were prepared to take up the fight.

Yes, there was a sense that life was more than immediate appearances, but the beauty and truth of life was immanent in the world, not removed from it. Blake, Wordsworth and co.’s romanticism was rooted in the earth, both in the appreciation of the natural world and in the political aims of improving the situation of humanity.

Similarly, romanticism was about love, but the love that it describes is at once more general and more specific than the ‘romantic love’ of hearts and flowers and candlelight. It was more specific because of the immanence of truth and beauty in the particular. Features of each person, each object of natural beauty, each situation, demanded a loving attention that could only be achieved through an openness and receptivity to what that particular had to offer.

At the same time, such attentiveness leads the romantic, at least in Wordsworth’s case, to an understanding of how nature operates on many levels, and how it has a unity as well as a particularity. For Wordsworth, human beings are part of this. This is why the romantic can embrace the ideas of individuality, originality and self-direction, while having a deep and serious account of the notion of human fellowship. Through loving things in their particularity, we can achieve something like the idea of agape. It is only through this attention to the particular, and not through imposing preconceived abstractions or theoretical models that this becomes possible.

This is not to speak out against the notion of ‘romantic love’ as we might usually understand it. I would be a fool to do that. Rather, it is to say that the sort of attentiveness that we can have to a particular person should both reflect and absorb the idea that we are situated in a world that nurtures and supports us. The reclamation of the romantic is personal, political and ecological.

Wordsworth and Nature (June 11th 2012)

‘Unlike the variegated, intense whirl of cities, the Lake District impressed on the mind just a few permanent objects, but ones that changed subtly with the weather, the seasons and the characteristic activities pursued at different times of year. Instead of meaningless differences, random variety and blank confusion, the setting of life in rural England conveyed a sense of order and permanence, …of change within stable and predictable limits. In this sense Renaissance Platonism lived on in Wordsworth’s poetry, with the Forms now drawn down from the transcendent realm and objectified in rocks, mountains, lakes and forests.’ ~ Lewis and Sandra Hinchman, ‘What We Owe the Romantics’ Environmental Values 16 (2007)I think that there is something in this, although the Platonism connection is a little peculiar. I think that the abandonment of the ‘transcendent realm’ identified here is precisely what distinguishes Wordsworth from the Platonists, and it isn’t at all clear what talk of ‘the Forms’ could mean, beyond talk of form.

I think on the whole what is said about Wordsworth here is dead right though. Personally, I experience this a lot less in dramatic landscapes like the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands, and a lot more in Norfolk, where the flat mercurial watery landscape quietly reflects every subtle change in the big open skies.

The lack of drama in these landscapes took me a while to get used to (I have a tendency to be more Shelley than Byron, more expressionist than impressionist in my rather overblown tastes) but the change in my surrounding landscape is concurrent with the development of my thinking over the past year. The East Anglian landscape, like Wordsworth’s poetry, forces you to be passively attentive to the land, rather than simply to venture into it as some kind of thrill seeker.