About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, June 30, 2019

New op-ed piece published by Arc Digital - "Philosophy Is Not Ideology"

This op-ed piece, "Philosophy Is Not Ideology", was published on 21 June 2019, over on the Arc Digital site. Check it out!

Sample:
Except in the discipline’s most technical areas, however — areas such as formal logic and the philosophical study of semantics — disputes among philosophers seldom converge on anything like a stable consensus. These disputes run into problems of ambiguous, conflicting, and incomplete evidence, conceptual confusion, and a diversity of bedrock assumptions, intuitions, and values. It is therefore typical, rather than unusual, for philosophers to maintain opposed ideas even after honest and strenuous efforts to find common ground. This is well known within the discipline, and in the past, such considerations have obtained far more consensus from philosophers than any suggested answers to big philosophical questions. Thus, philosophy’s tolerant disciplinary norms reflect the practicalities of philosophical inquiry.
The point of the article is not, however, to claim that all is well within the discipline of philosophy. On the contrary, it expresses concern about internal challenges to philosophy's disciplinary norm of fearless, open inquiry. Having examined a couple of cases of this, including the Tuvel affair, I conclude on a worried note:
In the past, philosophy has survived, and maintained its integrity, in the face of external pressures, including hostility from church and state. It is not clear, however, that philosophy as an academic discipline can survive the tactics of ideologues working from within.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A new review of The Tyranny of Opinion - on the "Babbling Books" site

This review of The Tyranny of Opinion on the "Babbling Books" blog is one of the best yet: it's kind, and also very perceptive. The author "gets" where I'm coming from, what I'm arguing about, and what I'm objecting to.

Please read the whole thing, because it really is a thoughtful review with many thoughtful observations. The discussion thread that follows is also surprisingly good, with civil, thoughtful exchanges of views. As a taste, however, the review concludes:
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Blackford is extremely balanced and tries to at least understand all sides. He presents the arguments of many people and groups that he criticizes and is often at least partially sympathetic to them. Many other critics of the phenomena described here have become fierce opponents of social justice movements and the left in general. That is not the direction that Blackford takes. In fact, in many ways he is more liberal and sympathetic to social justice causes than I am.

Blackford offers possible solutions. He makes some suggestion as to what social media platforms and even government can do. More importantly, he calls for people of all political and social beliefs to stand together to resist this nastiness and suppression of speech. He provides a list and commentary on other books that discuss this topic as well as a list of worthy books that have been the subject of these suppression campaigns.

I tend to shy away from books such as this that are very tied to very current events. As I have written in other posts, I usually read books that I consider to have universal appeal and that will be relevant far into the future. I made an exception here for various reasons. It is a topic that I am very interested in. It relates in all sorts of ways to other issues that I delve into in this blog. In terms of the book, I found that the first half was a universal examination of various issues, such as free speech, conformity, liberalism, etc. The second part did focus upon current events however.

It seems to me that this is an important book. I think that anyone interested in the general discourse on politics, social issues, art, etc. will find a lot of value here. No matter where one falls on these issues, the future of discussion communication affects us all. Even those who might disagree with Blackford will likely find him a nuanced thinker who makes a real effort to at least understand those who he disagrees with. I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in these topics.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Apologies: Your Best Guide on the Internet" (An oldie but a goodie)

This piece was originally published over on The Conversation. Check out the whole thing if you haven't read it before.

Near the end, I write as follows, in a way that goes against much conventional wisdom:

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[I]t’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility - or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.

In other cases, you - or I - might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)

In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.

When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.

If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little - or arguably nothing - wrong.

As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public - perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark - it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.

To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.

Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.

When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Helen Dale reviews THE TYRANNY OF OPINION

This is a very pleasing review by Helen Dale. She concludes: "[Blackford] writes gorgeously, guiding the reader through a great deal of material with expertise and, sometimes, élan. It is a lesson in how to argue, and how to think. The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism is an exceptional book. Anyone who engages in political debate should read it."

Monday, January 14, 2019

Australian Book Review reviews THE TYRANNY OF OPINION

The Tyranny of Opinion is Australian Book Review's book of the week this week, highlighted in its electronic newsletter. The journal has published the book review, by Ceridwen Spark, online. This is a wonderful review, and I couldn't be more pleased.

The review concludes: "Blackford’s book exemplifies how things might be if only we would all stop shouting at one another and learn to listen."

I'm expecting to see some more reviews soon. I know that there are reviews forthcoming in the immediate future from Quillette and Free Inquiry.