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Meetings in 2021

19 January  

Bob Clarke on Historical Reflections on the 'Two Cultures' Controversy (1959-1962)

In May 1959, the scientist and novelist C. P. Snow delivered at lecture in Cambridge, entitled 'The Two Cultures' -ostensibly they were the Sciences and the Humanities. He argued for a great expansion of scientific education in Britain, but he also deplored the lack of mutual understanding between the two cultures. In February 1962 the Cambridge literary scholar F. R. Leavis responded to Snow via another Cambridge lecture in which he attacked Snow ferociously in terms that most commentators found shocking. As both lectures were published, the controversy became very well-known across the English-speaking world. Through this talk we will attempt to understand the controversy within a broader historical context, delving back as far as 1798. We will see that 'Science vs The Humanities' is not the only Cultural Polarity that is being addressed in this debate. In  our discussion we can reflect on how the individual issues that separately exercised Snow and Leavis retain their relevance today. Notes

16 February

Vanessa Dodd on Iris Murdoch - A very British philosopher

Novelist, essayist and moral philosopher, Iris Murdoch is often remembered for her decline into Alzheimer's depicted in the 2001 film Iris.  In this talk I hope to recover some of her standing as a moral philosopher and philosopher of art by exploring the key philosophies which dominate her thinking including Platonism, on which she builds her moral philosophy, and Existentialism, which she rejects as a worldview, damning it 'an unfit philosophy for the 20th century', despite her being instrumental in bringing it to Britain. I will argue that Murdoch, who taught philosophy at Oxford, was a 'very British philosopher', who forged a middle way between the British Empiricist tradition and the story-rich Continental philosophy, with  special reference to her award winning novel The Sea, the Sea (1978) which platforms her philosophical ideas in story form. Lecture Notes

16 March

John Clarke 'Extinction: The Next Big Issue

The possibility of the extinction of the human species has been around since at least the early 19th century when Tomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population, and later in Darwin's Origin of Species which broadened this out by considering the elimination over time of species of all kinds to be an inevitable consequence of the principle of natural selection. Scientists have identified five mass extinctions of animal species, and some speculate we are now in a sixth, believed to be largely the consequence of human activity. This activity, which has implications for the biosphere as a whole, involves climate change arising from increasing levels of greenhouse gases from the use of fossil fuels, human population growth, deforestation and overuse of land for agricultural production.  Some predict the likelihood of an environmental catastrophe leading to the extinction of the human species within the next hundred years. This is now a subject of wide-ranging debate. The talk comprises some thoughts on this debate from the perspective of philosophy and the history of ideas.

20 April

Prof. Simon Cottle on Massacre of the Innocents

This presentation reflects on the changing historical registers and shifting sentiments evident within depictions of atrocity over many centuries and reflects on what this may tell us about the deeper historical currents running through human society and shifting sensibilities toward human suffering. We are interested here, then, not just with the immediate power plays and political uses and appropriations that representations of atrocity are put to in historical struggles for legitimation and change, but also the ways in which they register considerably longer-term and deeper developmental processes in human society. Attending to the historical antecedents and continuing development in representations of contemporary atrocity can help to illuminate how deeper historical trajectories of change inform the sensibility and practices of humanitarianism, human rights and human security today. As a way of securing some empirical traction on this subject and in a way that can help to illuminate changing historical registers and shifting sentiments, the presentation deliberately focuses on one particular atrocity, a scene represented many times in Western art across the centuries: 'Massacre of the Innocents.' By examining 101 paintings from the 10th to 21st centuries the presentation recovers wider trends in how depictions of atrocity have changed over time and considers what this may tell us about, inter alia, the historical 'expansion of the human circle' (Singer 211), the evolution of the  'empathic civilization' (Rifkin 2012) and moral deepening of the 'civil sphere' (Alexander 2006) -  and in ways that may help us to better understand how atrocity is made to mean in today's globalized and increasingly mediated world.

18 May

Herbie Girardet The Forest as Teacher

The Wye Valley is an area unusually rich in forest cover, teaching us about the circle of life as it unfolds year after year. This stands in sharp contrast to our linear economic arrangements, which ignore our environmental impacts, and play havoc with life on earth as never before. It is time to reframe economic theory and practice, assuring a compatible, regenerative relationship between people and planet. My illustrated talk draws on my work with the Club of Rome, on 45 years of interaction with local forests, and on making documentaries in the Amazon

15 June

Ken Binmore on The origins and development of Utilitarianism

Utilitarians think we should seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Who were the pioneer utilitarians? What kind of lives did they live? How did their doctrine develop? What does modern utilitarianism look like? This talk focuses on the beginnings of utilitarianism. The plan is to say a little about all of the pioneers up to and including the delightfully eccentric Jeremy Bentham. On the way, we will encounter Claude Helvetius, whose book was burned in the Paris street by the public hangman, and William Godwin, whose wife was the feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft, and whose daughter eloped with the poet Shelley before writing Frankenstein

20 July

Keith Ray on Freedom to choose

Keith writes: I am calling the talk 'The Freedom to Choose' which has been taken from Viktor Frankl's book 'Man's Search for Meaning'.  A Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry in Vienna, Frankl survived 3+ years in various Nazi death camps during WW2. I will be sharing some reflections on how Frankl's wisdom not only inspired me in my lifetime but in my view offers hope for those currently experiencing human suffering with their mental well-being which the covid pandemic is being held responsible for. I am hoping that the discussion afterwards will centre on the mental well-being aspects and how future generations of young people can be supported. In my view Frankl's book is one of the most important ever written.

21 September

John Clark on Democracy: where it came from and where it is going to

The talk will briefly chart the evolution of democracy and the institutions necessary for it to function. It will explore how these foundations have been shaken in recent times by the growing complexity of political discourse, the swing to fervent nationalism and the emerging dominance of social media.  And it will discuss the relevance of civil society in redefining democracy for the times we live in and for shoring up these foundations. It will present a personal take on these issues from someone whose career has focused on the roles of civil society in development, governance and holding the powerful to account.    Presentation slides

19 October

John Clarke asks: Do we need a New Worldview?

As we approach COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, I want to raise some philosophical questions about the need, often expressed, for a new world view if we are to deal adequately with the global warming crisis. I will be making use of the ideas of philosophers Spinoza (1632-77), and Arne Naess (1912-2009) founder of the Deep Ecology movement.

 I have long felt that, while the contributions of science and technology to this crisis are absolutely vital, at the same time we need to examine the worldview which underlies our current attitudes and policies. Broadly speaking, this worldview, stemming from the scientific and industrial revolutions and the social ideals of the European Enlightenment, has certainly helped to make us wealthy, but it has also encouraged us to exploit the resources of the earth and to treat nature as an inexhaustible supply of material. Deep ecology urged us to place 'Earth First' in our scale of values, and I explore this with the intention of developing a more spiritual approach to this matter, and to do this I draw on Spinoza's idea of pantheism, namely the belief that the natural and the spiritual worlds are identical, and I argue that many new ideas in the natural sciences not only challenge some of the fundamental principles of the modernist worldview, but represent the basis of a new worldview which radically transforms our understanding of nature and of our relation to it.    

16 November

Bob Clarke on the Enigma of Time

 From a scientific point of view, time presents us with an enigma. On the one hand, time is the physical quantity that we can measure far more accurately than any others - and time appears as a key parameter in all of the mathematical expressions of the 'Laws of Physics' that we apply practically in the world every day. On the other hand, some theoretical physicists argue that time is not a fundamental feature of our world at all and may even be an 'illusion'! In an attempt to resolve this enigma, this talk will survey scientific aspects of time ranging from practical time keeping to theories of Quantum Gravity. Can science actually tell us what time is 'fundamentally'? And - if not, why not?

21 December 2021