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Janna Thompson

From the Enlightenment, according to contemporary critics, came a dream about human progress from which we have awakened. The Enlightenment is commonly presented as an intellectual era when philosophers believed that reason would solve all human problems and provide a solid foundation for morality and politics. But surely we now know better.

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It is possible to imagine a culture that treats art merely as decoration, but to inheritors of the European tradition this idea of art’s function is demeaning. We expect great art to express or reflect the spiritual and philosophical preoccupations of our cultural heritage. No system-building philosopher in modern European history would have failed to incorporate an aesthetic theory into his theoretical scheme. Philosophical system-building has been debunked and largely abandoned, but contemporary European thinkers continue to pronounce on art from the perspective of their philosophies.

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Racism in Mind edited by Michael P. Levine and Tamas Pataki

August 2004, no. 263

The anthropologists of some future galactic civilisation, sifting through the remains of human life on earth, will find much to puzzle them, but nothing more so than the propensity of supposedly rational creatures to denigrate, hate or even murder those who are perceived to be different in race. How should we understand racism? Where does it come from, and how can it be eradicated? The editors of this book have assembled an impressive collection of philosophers and psychologists to tackle these questions. Their wide-ranging and often conflicting answers do not make racism less puzzling, but, like all good philosophical investigations, this book has the effect of making the reader puzzle more profoundly.

The editors took a lot of pains with this collection. They ensured that it would be accessible to general readers, as well as scholars. The introduction, by Tamas Pataki, is particularly helpful in providing a framework for the discussion. The editors encouraged contributors to read and comment on each other’s work. The result is a discourse in which participants with different approaches and perspectives cooperate to tackle a matter of serious concern.

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Those of us who walk across bridges in support of reconciliation, and sign Sorry Day books, do so because we feel an obligation to recognise and apologise for the destructive legacy of past practices. Sometimes we can speak directly to those people who were taken away; often we are addressing their descendants. As the prime minister continues to point out, many of us are apologising for something for which we are not individually responsible. So what is the source of this sense of obligation, and how can saying sorry make a difference?

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Val Plumwood, the author of a highly praised defence of eco-feminism, Feminism and Mastery of Nature, presents in this book a critique of ‘rationalist culture’ and explains why it harms nature as well as so many people. Plumwood’s criticism of rationalism centres on the thesis she advanced in her earlier book. From Plato onward, it has been regarded as rational to divide the world into polarised and homogeneous conceptual categories (reason/emotion, culture/nature, spirit/matter, masculine/feminine) and to regard things falling under the first term of these dichotomies as superior to those belonging to the second. This way of thinking, Plumwood argues, has given rationalists a licence to ignore the needs of beings deemed to be inferior – to dominate and exploit them for the sake of their ‘superiors’. In particular, it has been used to justify the domination of nature and of women.

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