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Promises Unspoken

A Wittgensteinian Response to the Very Idea of a Social Contract

Anthony Holiday

In the ordinary way, we all know very well what a contract is. It is a mutual undertaking or promise by two or more parties to do or refrain from doing something or another. Such promises may be made verbally, by means of gestures, or expressed in writing, but they must be expressed or else the contract is not merely null and void, but nonexistent. There is no such thing as an inaudible and invisible contract. To think otherwise is to mistake metaphorical for literal language. Yet the history of political philosophy from the 17th century until the present day has been dominated by the idea of a contract to which no persons living or dead ever affixed a signature or so much as nodded assent; a promise binding on the whole of civilised humankind, on which are thought to rest the complementary edifices of civil society and the state.

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Anthony Holiday

It is a commonplace of Kantian scholarship to describe his system as an attempt to curb the scope of rationalist metaphysics in order to accommodate his religio-ethical convictions. Indeed, in the second edition Preface to the First Critique, Kant himself says bluntly that he has ‘found it necessary to deny knowledge (Erkenntnis) in order to make room for faith (Glaube)’.

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'The Walls of Our Cage'

Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics

Anthony Holiday

The phrase which commences the title of this essay occurs among the concluding sentences of a paper which Wittgenstein presented to Cambridge’s Heretics Society in November of 1929, the momentous year in which he returned to academic philosophy and (in writing the paper, ‘Some Remarks on Logical Form’), began to make public his doubts about the viability of some of the logico-semantic doctrines of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. His offering to the ‘Heretics’ is generally known as his Lecture on Ethics (henceforth LE),1 although the typescript on which it was presumably based bears no title. The Lecture consists of a careful elaboration of the laconic statements in the Tractatus concerning the transcendental status of ethical and aesthetic values (TLP 6.42 – 6.423). Although Wittgenstein avoids any reference to his first great work, he, nonetheless, argues for the same position set out in the Tractatus, which is that there can be no propositions concerning such values, so that any attempt to say anything about what is absolutely good or beautiful transgresses the limits of language and results in nonsensical utterances.

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Anthony Holiday

John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University speaks to the concerns of African educationalists, not despite, but because of the circumstance that his fidelity to the ideal of a university as a seat of universal knowledge is tied to his argument for the inclusion of theology as an indispensable part of any university syllabus. It is not the case, moreover, that his idealism resonates with us purely because it is carried by a magnificent prose style. Rather, Newman’s thoughts about the universality of higher learning touch us across a considerable culturo-temporal divide, because Africans in their quest for a form of university education which will harmonize with their Africanness are driven by an innate conviction, too seldom made explicit, that such education would have to be inseparable from their own spirituality and religious commitments. If the conviction remains largely unspoken, this has much to do with the global climate of scientism and secularism in which humanity’s aspirations – religious and educational – must seek expression. It is, perhaps, because we are denizens of this climate that we can scarcely suppress a smile at Newman’s claim that theology is a factual science much as, say, physics is a factual science and why his assertion in the Fourth Discourse that “the preservation of our race in Noah’s Ark is an historical fact which history never would arrive at without revelation”1 strikes us (quite rightly) as being something of a howler.