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The Situation of Philosophy in South Africa; Human Nature: Issues in Philosophical Anthropology (Conference Report, Middlesex Polytechnic, 3-5th April 1987); Applied Philosophy (Conference Report, Society for Applied Philosophy, Gregynog, 22-24th May 1987)

The Situation of Philosophy in
South Africa

P. Kirsten has noted in an issue of the South African Journal of
Philosophy (Vol. 2, No. 3, 1983) commemorating the centenary of
Marx’s death and calling for a more open-minded attitude towards
Marxism: ‘I~ological bias, public ignorance and academic indifThere has been no ‘Graceland’ for South African philosophy.

ference have long handicapped a serious and open-minded debate
While Mhaquanga music may have been brought to the f~re~ont about Marx and Marxism in this country… ‘

of international music by Paul Simon, no such powerful mdigeA debate currently under way, particularly at Afrikaans menous South African philosophy pervades the universities of this dium universities, revolves around the relation between Marxism
country. This is not to say that there has not been a development and Christianity. An element of this debate is the endeavour to
of an African consciousness and awareness. Out of the developseparate Marxism from Soviet communism, th~ identity of wh~ch
ment of black consciousness and independence we should soon
is entrenched in the minds of many South Africans. By freemg
begin to see the development of new ~iews of the universe an?

Marxism from its uses by Lenin and Stalin, it is hoped that
man’s place in it. Unfortunately for philosophy at the moment, It Marxism may be used to understand some of the conflicts and
is the theatre and literature which have captivated the interest of aspirations of people in this country. This view has been expressed
black liberation.

by a leading academic, J. J. Snyman, when he claims that ‘MarxOn the whole, South African philosophers are more orientated ism is not a conspiracy of agitators from beyond our borders, but
towards international concerns. As in most other countries, the
the revolutionary onslaught which we are currently experiencing,
interests of philosophers in South Africa range over a br?ad ar~:

as well as the growth in popularity of Marxism in some of the
from issues in analytical philosophy such as the mmd/bram
groups in our land has at least some causes in our o~n back yard’

identity thesis, the Philosophy of Language and Theory of Know1(Ideologie en Teologie, quoted from a o~e-day se~mar’presented
edge, to the more concrete concerns of Marxists such as class
on Christianity and Marxism at Rand Afrikaans UmversIty held on
struggle, economic and historical determinism. Phen?me~~lo~y 27 March 1987. The translations from Afrikaans in the text are my
and existentialism have had their influence at many umversIties m
own). It is ironical to note that in this respect black liberation
this country. Hermeneutics too has played its part, and contempotheologies have largely been inspired ~y Marxism ~~ h~ve thus
rary readings of psychoanalysis such as that offered by Lacan have
approached the relation between MarxIsm and ChristianIty from
entered the debates. We must not omit the study of the history of an alternative perspective.

philosophy with philosophers from Plato to Kant forming the
Different philosophy departments in South Africa have differfoundation of most studies of philosophy in this country. The
ent interests and foci. Some of the departments do not focus on the
debate between Modernism and post Modernism has come to
issues dealt with above. Thus for example the Philtisophy Departoccupy a more central position in South African philosophy with ment at the University of Witwatersrand, which has a predomiissues such as the death of man, the limits of subjectivity, the overnantly analytic focus, leaves such issues for discussion in the
coming of humanism, the denial of origins and so on generating
Department of Political Science or in post-graduate programmes
much excitement.

in the field of Social Theory, which offer the possibility of
It would be incorrect, however, to form the impression that
integrating the more politically and socially oriented philosophy
philosophers in South Africa are unresp?nsive to ~e soc~~ and
into a general curriculum. At other universities, such as the Rand
political situation of this country. The SOCIal and pobti~ cn~Is has Afrikaans University, social and political philosophy can be
demanded much questioning and thought from whIch philosostudied from within the Department of Philosophy, while at uniphers cannot remain free. It has promoted. concern abou~ the versities such as the University of Natal, the disciplines of philosomeaning of democracy. Racism and the question of hum~n ng~ts
phy and political studies are combined in ~~e departme~t. In m~y
have increasingly become causes of concern. Along WIth thIS,
respects it is difficult to separate political and philosophIcal
reflection has been directed towards the relation between various concerns.

sub-cultures, ethnic groups and ideologies of the different peo~le If in conclusion I may be permitted a personal speculation, it is that
of South Africa. These issues are dealt with from both a humanIst the political and social situation in S?uth Ati?ca de~ands .a
and a nationalist perspective, with the latter recognising the reconstruction of man’s conception of hImself, his relation to hIS
unjustness of apartheid but continuing to call for the maintenance fellowmen and to nature. Present political ideologies do not seem
of separate identities of the various groups.

to accommodate all the nuances in the South African crisis. Anew
With the increased possibility of violent confrontation bevision not only of the relation between races or systems of
tween the various racial groups, ideologies or classes (the terms
government, but of man ‘s pla~ in exis~nce, of the inspirations
used in this instance depend on one’s theoretical framework and
and driving forces of man s eXIStence, I~ call~ for. We n~ a
outlook for post-apartheid South Africa), attention has been division of African man. What we are asking for IS not a nonracIal
rected towards forms of violence such as war, revolution and society but a society with goals and values beyond ~e confmes ~f
nuclear threats, with the principle of compulsory military service race; nota society defmed in reaction to or p~ely ag~nstaparth~Id
proving to be a high profile focal point. On this issue debates range and colonialism, but a forward-looking SOCIety WIth aff’trmative
from duty to one’s country to unwillingness to perpetuate the
and not inhibitive goals. Surely the philosopher has a major role
. .

unjust system of apartheid.

in initiating such a reconstruction.

In this respect it is interesting to note the mcreased mterest
shown by academics and intellectuals in Marxism. ~her~ .onc~ Steven SegaJ
interest in Marxism was sanctioned only by a few umverSItieS, It
has over the last few years acquired a much broader appeal. As


Human Nature: Issues in
Philosophical Anthropology
Middlesex Polytechnic. 3.4 and 5 April 1987
The conference was divided into six rather densely packed. and
often overlapping sessions. The first session included a characteristically forceful statement by Mary Midgley of the necessity for
some concept of human nature. and. more specifically. for one
which recognises the illumination which can come from human!

animal comparisons and from Darwinian biology. Opposed to
Mary Midgley’s theme. but in very different ways. were Roger
Hams. arguing for the distinctiveness of human social labour. and
Anthony O’Hear, presenting a case for considering ‘high’ (in
contrast to ‘popular’) culture as a uniquely rich source of insight
into human life and experience.

The session which must have given the organisers the most
headaches was the set-piece confrontation. in session 3, between
Roger Scruton and Stephen Rose. In the event this was a somewhat bizarre episode, in which Stephen Rose criticised sociobiologyas the intellectual basis of the ‘New Right’ and Roger Scruton
presented a rather orthodox dualist critique of sociobiology on
behalfof the New Right. This rather acrimonious session followed
a rather more amiable discussion, between David Levy, Francis
Dunlop and Peter Osbome on the special tradition of ‘philosophical anthropology’ associated with Max Scheler. Session 4 was a
joint presentation by Len Doyal and lan Gough of their work on
human needs and welfare politics. It was for me. if not ‘the’, then
certainly ‘a’ highlight of the conference. The occasion provided
an opportunity for them to ‘flesh out’ and defend (against some
quite hostile questioning) their highly pertinent and very original

Unfortunately, but predictably, the last two sessions. on the
Sunday, suffered somewhat from reduced attendance. Roger
Trigg and I introduced a more direct discussion of the theme
implicit throughout the conference – the relevance of biology to
human social life. In effect, both of us argued that some biological
input is necessary but not sufficient for an adequate account of
human nature, but we differed quite sharply as to the specific
biological approaches which might provide this necessary component.

The fmal session, on sex and gender, was in some respects the
most interesting in the conference. J oannaNorth presented a wellargued case for a naturalistic view of human gender-differences.

Paradoxically, this was aimed against what was called ‘the radical
approach’ ,in which a strong distinction is made between (biologically detennined) sex differences and (socially constructed) gender differences. As Janet Sayers’ carefully presented reply demonstrated, this distinction is highly controversial and problematic
within feminism, the label ‘radical’ being commonly applied to
feminists who would be broadly sympathetic to Joanna North’s
own naturalism.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the conference was the
co-presence of several philosophers of the ‘New Right’ , associated with the Salisbury Review, together with quite a band of
stalwarts of the political Left. The Scruton/Rose session certainly
generated more heat than light. Anthony O’Hear’s espousal of
‘high’ culture upset quite a few of his audience, and the session on
human needs was interrupted by a bizarre and irrelevant reading
of an East European dissident text by one of the audience. Apart
from these isolated incidents, the debates were surprisingly civilised, if often rather at cross-purposes. I suspect that one of the
reasons why this was so is that philosophical positions do not
neatly correlate with political ones. Scruton’s neo-Hegelian


cultural determinism clearly upset adherents of the radical individualist strand within the New Right, whilst the closest approaches to ‘biological determinism’ were advocated by representatives of the political Left, and the strongest advocacy of nature/
culture dualism came from the Right. Mary Midgley’s dead-pan
definition of the enlightened as ‘that class of persons who read the
Guardian’ will stay with me for some time.

Ted Benton

Applied Philosophy
Take an enormous Victorian half-timbered mansion. a Bank Holiday weekend. several members of the Radical Philosophy Collective and friends, an assorted medley of other philosophers. and
what do you have? Answer – a slightly surreal event, namely this
year’s conference of the Society for Applied Philosophy, held at
Gregynog in Wales from 22-24 May.

The Society for Applied Philosophy, and its journal, arose
from a desire to show that philosophy is relevant to practical and
social issues; the birth of the Society was, I think, related to the
desperate situation of many philosophy departments in this country who were, and are, facing reduction and closure, and to a belief
that philosophy must work hard to shed its ‘ivory tower’ image.

But the notion of ‘applying’ philosophy, as a specific enterprise,
depends on a notion of ‘pure’ philosophy which is somehow
unconnected with or independent of social relationships. And the
slightly surreal nature of the conference derived from the difficulties of real dialogue between those who saw philosophy simply as
a useful ‘tool’ which could be ‘applied’, and those who saw it as
already shot through with assumptions, about such things as
gender, for example.

The theme of the conference was Sex, Gender, Feminism and
the Family. A broad brief; and the papers ranged over a very wide
and disparate range of topics, from surrogacy and the problem of
parental ‘rights’ over children, to discussions of gender and class
and philosophy and feminism. The conference was, at times.

polarised into those who adhered to the analytical model of
philosophy as a ‘tool’ and those who did not. The polarisation was
both philosophical and political, and at their worst, the discussions
generated such things as jibes at the Communist Manifesto and
travesties of w hat ‘feminists’ think, which revealed the difficulties
of communication between those for whom a Marxist or feminist
approach, however problematic, is fundamental, and those who
regarded this with extreme scepticism or distaste. A prize for the
worst solecism (for which he apologised afterwards) must go to
the retired Oxford philosopher, R. M. Hare, who wondered out
loud during one of the discussions whether ‘feminists’ read
philosophical books.

But there were some good papers and discussions too, and as
usual, the value of the conference was by no means limited to the
scheduled sessions. A great deal of meeting, discussion and
exchange of views took place at other times, and was most
enjoyable. For me, the highpoints of the conference sessions were,
I think, Sue Mendus’ wonderfully clear and interesting paper on
J. S. Mill’s view of marriage, Morwenna Griffiths’ cool and clear
review of recent work on feminism and philosophy, and Lynne
Segal’s barnstorming look at conflicts in feminist thinking.

Jean Grimshaw

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