Jonathan Miller

For those who would like to read a really positive review by me, have a look at my review of the collected writings of Jonathan Miller in the latest New York Review of Books. Now that was a pleasure to write. I must have written about a hundred reviews by now, some more positive than others. I think you will find a normal distribution of positives and negatives.


Extinct humans and human limits

I’ve been reading  Yuval Noah Harari’s best-seller Sapiens and I think it is very good. My own forthcoming book Prehension is in the same area, though I deal with human evolution before culture got started. One thing he emphasizes is that H. Sapiens once shared the planet with several other human species–Neanderthals, H. Erectus, Denisovans, and others. These are all, sadly, extinct. This is a great pity for many reasons, one of which is that we can never investigate their psychology. Would we find various cognitive limitations in our fellow human species? Might they exceed us in some areas? It seems likely that we would conclude that some areas are off limits to their understanding–that there are mysteries-for-Neanderthals. There is certainly no guarantee that all these species would be intellectually equal. Maybe they would conclude that there are mysteries-for-Sapiens! In any case, the question of mysteries and cognitive limits would be much helped if these species had not gone extinct. As it is, it is easy for us to see ourselves as quite discontinuous with other species intellectually–and hence nurture illusions of omniscience.


A True Story

Here’s a birthday tale: who says philosophers don’t have adventures? Any parallels and life lessons I leave to my readers to draw.




A Great Escape



Last week I went to meet a friend of mine, Greg, for a nice evening boat ride. I drove over to Monty’s restaurant in Coconut Grove, parked, and went to join him on a nearby dock. He picked me up in his boat and we went for the planned boat ride, stopping off in a restaurant for dinner. It all went very smoothly and pleasantly, despite some initial logistical issues. At the end of the evening he took me back to the dock at Monty’s and then sped off. As I turned to regain solid ground (it was a floating dock) I observed that the gate through which I had entered earlier had been locked. It was 11.15 and there was no one around. I was trapped. It was dark. The gate was very high and there was no apparent way off the dock. I quickly realized that my only chance of getting back to dry land would be to get into the water and wade or swim to some rocks that led up to the road, and even then escape was not guaranteed, as the rocks were adjacent to a vertical face several feet below level land. I did not like the idea of getting into the water at all, fully clothed, and arriving drenched at valet parking in Monty’s (why was I so wet?). A pleasant evening had suddenly changed to a looming nightmare.

I noticed a small plastic boat moored to the dock and situated between the dock and some rocks. It was not long enough to span the stretch of water that needed to be traversed. If I could get into it I might be able to move it across a bit, within jumping distance of the rocks. It seemed like a long shot and quite perilous—it would be easy to fall in the water. I gripped the side of the dock with my hands and extended my leg in the direction of the narrow bow of the boat, placing it at the tip. It dipped alarmingly. It would be hard to get back now, so I swung my other foot over, placing both feet on the end of the boat, while trying to hold as much of my weight as possible with my hands. I managed to keep my balance and transferred my weight over to the tiny boat, which was clearly not designed for standing up in (I would have toppled over if it weren’t that I kept my grip on the dock). I edged up the boat crabwise and reached the stern, but it was still about five feet from the rocks, which looked slippery and inclined steeply down to the water. The question was whether the boat’s ropes would allow me to move it over a few feet. They did, but it was still a couple of feet between the boat and the rock.

Still gripping the side of the dock with my hands I aimed one foot at the rock, ready to brace for the slip. My foot stayed in place, so I brought the other one over, with most of my weight held by hands (I had to be thankful for them). I was now on the good side of the water, but still marooned on the rocks, in an even worse position than before. The trouble was that ground level was about five feet above me with nothing to pull myself up with. So the prospect of a night on the rocks was still with me. Then I saw a plant growing up from the rocks on the side of the dock—could I use that? It didn’t look very promising. I edged over to it, still being careful not to slip down the rocks into the water, causing both injury and saturation. One of the stalks had been cut: it was about an inch in diameter and very wet looking. My only hope was put my foot on it, push up while grabbing the dock, and try to pull myself onto land. It looked pretty risky: if my foot slipped as I pushed up, I would come down hard on the rock and tumble into the water. But I had little choice. Very gingerly I pushed up with the left foot, as squarely as possible, and it didn’t slip sideways. I was now balancing on one foot on a one-inch diameter stalk, the other foot lightly resting on the rest of the plant. Now I needed to hoist myself up by my arms and heave my body onto the flat land. I called upon all my earlier training as a gymnast and yanked myself up as hard as possible, scrambling to get my body over the rim of the dock. It worked: I was now lying face down on the ground, with legs dangling. I got to my feet (that was no trouble, comparatively).

I wandered over to valet parking, not wet at all, paid my fee to the valet guy, and drove silently home.


Downton Abbey

The great Downton ended its fifth season last week. I was struck till the very end by its preoccupation with matters moral: it’s not primarily about the British class system or the recent history of imperial England–it’s about right and wrong, good and evil. The good may be flawed (Lord Grantham) and the bad may be redeemable (Mr Barrow), but there is hardly a moment when some moral crux is not at full throttle. Mrs Hughes is the still moral centre of the show, closely followed by Mrs Crawley–with Anna Bates always tearfully and stoically in the right. But I greatly admired the actions taken by Mr Moseley (aided by Miss Baxter) in tirelessly identifying the pub where Mr Bates had his lunch on the day Mr Green was murdered: this was such a beautiful example of selfless virtue, quiet and determined, and ultimately successful. Mr Pratt, by contrast, is simply hilarious in his petty vanity.


Galen Strawson on the Consciousness Myth

That was a very enlightening article by Galen Strawson in the TLS about the history of the mind-body problem. He thoroughly debunks the idea that consciousness entered philosophy around 1995. Consciousness had long been regarded as especially problematic for materialism (I was banging on about it in my 1982 book The Character of Mind, following earlier thinkers). Even the phrase “what it’s like” dates back at least to a 1950 article by Brian Farrell (it was not invented by Thomas Nagel, as he himself has pointed out). It’s important that these things be got right.


Intellectual Oscars

It was nice to see the films about Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking doing so well at the Oscars, but I wonder if there would be anything like the same interest if the former had not been gay and the latter confined to a wheelchair. I yield to no one in my admiration of these two men, but it’s clear that the content of their minds was not the point. They are “human interest” stories, not stories about intellectuals. How many people, watching these two films, tried to find out about what these two geniuses actually thought? Perhaps they are the form in which people can accept intellectuals–they must be tormented or persecuted in some way. What about a film about an intellectual who did not have such problems? Or one that investigated the purely intellectual struggles of Turing and Hawking. Still, we should be grateful that these two great thinkers get the Hollywood treatment at all.


Jessie J

I had the good fortune to see Jessie J perform last night in concert at the Fillmore theater in South Beach. She sang with a four piece band to a dedicated and enthusiastic audience. I expected to be amazed by her voice (I listen to her albums all the time) but I was also much impressed with her stage presence and movement. It’s not dancing exactly but it is so integrated with the music, and so basically soulful, that it really made the performance. She gave it her all. She ended with Bang Bang, of course, and it brought the house down. She didn’t sing Big White Room, her great ballad, which really shows off her voice, but for a concert it is a little too serious and heavy. Anyway, I was not disappointed with the phenomenal Ms. Cornish. I think she is simply the best woman pop singer in the world today.

When I got home I watched the 40th year celebration of SNL, which was excellent, except for one thing: a truly horrendous performance by Paul McCartney of Maybe I’m Amazed. I don’t much care for the song, but Paul’s voice is shot–it was painful to listen to. I felt for him, because I am not all anti-Paul. Paul, meet Jessie.



It is an odd thing about an ideology that it is never acknowledged by the person in the grip of it. He or she thinks it is the purest common sense or the soundest theory. No one ever thinks, “Yes, I am an ideologue and proud of it”. Religious ideologies, political ideologies, racial ideologies, gender ideologies, philosophical ideologies: no one in the grip of them ever realizes it. That is why it is so hard to dislodge ideologies, and why they seem to their believers to be completely rational. They always seem to involve an enemy that is demonized, and they consist of simple propositions that can be used to subsume anything that comes along. How do you tell if you are the dupe of an ideology, as opposed to a believer in a true theory? There is no litmus test, but anyone outside the ideology can see that it is operating. I think the clearest sign of it is a habit of generalizing about large classes of people in a derogatory way, without much regard for specific facts. I wonder how long ideologies have been around: did cave men and cave women have them? What about Neanderthals? Are any current apes ideologues? There is no doubt that they are a main curse of the human race, and surely everyone wants to avoid being an ideologue. Yet so many people are. Everyone should make every effort to ensure that they are not in the grip of an ideology, as a basic moral duty, being well aware that ideologies do not proclaim themselves as such. I am probably a victim of an ideology myself: I am thoroughly convinced of the ideology that ideologies are bad–I am an anti-ideology ideologue. And this ideology strikes me as the purest common sense.