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Last Night’s Cafe: The Philosophy of Cycling

The Cyclist as Man/Woman-Machine

The Cyclist as Man/Woman-Machine

Asking whether it makes sense to talk of ‘the philosophy of…’ something is a question that immediately launches other ones. It makes sense to talk about ‘the philosophy of physics’ or ‘the philosophy of biology’, insofar as it’s possible to explore the fundamental presuppositions of a science (e.g. what kinds of things are there?) and see if they cohere together. On the other hand, to talk of ‘the philosophy of nanotechnology’, or ‘the philosophy of mobile phones’ would be a stretch – perhaps ‘the philosophical implications of x‘ would make more sense. At last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe, Clive Cazeaux, Professor of Aesthetics at Cardiff School of Art and Design, offered some reflections on the nature and meaning of cycling. While these focused on the philosophical implications of the experience of riding a bike, Clive suggested at the same time that, among these implications, is that cycling provides a particular way of ‘knowing’, or revealing, the world that makes up a coherent worldview. This, indeed, may be at the root of why cyclists and motorists sometimes find it difficult to share the same piece of tarmac.

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Next Cafe: The Philosophy of Cycling

Cyclist Léon Georget in 1909.

Cyclist Léon Georget in 1909. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is there a philosophy of cycling? When one tries to bring philosophy to cycling, one soon realizes that cycling is hard to pin down. Which aspect of cycling is meant? Racing, commuting, touring, mountain biking, family, leisure, town planning, environmental considerations, social structures, the fact that it is not motoring, states of physical exhilaration?

Although we have one word, ‘cycling’ in actual fact encompasses an extremely large number of ways of life and forms of being. This in itself is philosophically interesting, suggesting that if cycling is any one thing, it is perhaps first and foremost a set of questions that asks us to reflect on identity and the commitments we make in life. In tonight’s Philosophy Café, Clive Cazeaux, Professor of Aesthetics at Cardiff School of Art and Design, explores the questioning-character of cycling, and shows how it draws upon recent developments in the philosophies of embodiment and technology.

Join us in the Cafe Bar at The Gate at 8.00pm on 16 June.

Bike Week 2015


Next Cafe: Understanding Scientists’ Experiences of Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing

Personalised genomics

Personalised genomics

The coming era of personalised medicine has been touted for nearly two decades. Part of this promised future, in which treatments are expected to be tailored to individuals and healthcare information, through ICTs and the ‘internet of things’ will both be ubiquitously available and continually updated in real time, is the advent of personal genomics. Companies such as 23andMe offer personalised genomic scans which, it is claimed, can help you plan your future by alerting you to elevated levels of risk for common as well as rare conditions with a genetic component, from type-2 diabetes and heart disease to Huntingdon’s disease. Controversy has blossomed around these tests in the USA, with the Food and Drug Administration banning 23andMe’s products after a long period of uncertainty. Recently, 23andMe began marketing them in the UK, on the same basis as they had in the US – that with more information about our genetic makeup, we can take better decisions about how to live in order to stay healthy for longer. But what do these tests really tell us? And how can we make decisions based on the information they provide?

Michael Arribas Ayllon from the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University explores these issues using data from a study carried out with scientists who have themselves taken personal genomic tests. How do ‘experts’ use this information, and how do their interpretations differ from those of non-experts? Does having more knowledge about genetics make the information provided by these tests more meaningful? In an era where personalisation also means that we will become more personally responsible for our health, questions about the meaning and usefulness of genomic data are becoming more and more pressing.

Join us in the Cafe Bar at the Gate from 8.00pm on Tuesday 19 May.


Next Cafe: Sources and Resources – The Roots of Connection

Blake's The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clo...

Blake's The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (1805) is one of a series of illustrations of Revelation 12. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are convinced that our individuality is the most valuable thing about us, but where, how and when does valuing individuality become valuing disconnection? In this Café, regular audience member Jo Harding explores the ‘roots of connection’, considering how we can make new links between inner and outer experience, and enhance our perception of the world we inhabit and our sense of connection to others. Can we, through practices such as meditation and mindfulness, transform our lives in ways that reflect William Blake’s remark “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite….”?

The Cafe starts at 20:00 on Tuesday 21 April in the Cafe Bar at The Gate.


Last Night’s Cafe: The Pursuit of Happiness

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (...

Jeremy Bentham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is happiness? What produces it? These were two of the questions featured in last night’s Cafe talk by Chris Groves. Happiness may be considered, as it often has been from Epicurus all the way through to Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill, as a subjective state of mind, a feeling of pleasure or at least freedom from disturbance. Or it may be considered as a more objective condition, like to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which is manifested through behaviour and the dispositions or virtues manifested in it. Often, it has been thought of as a value which has a special, central place in human life, granting meaning but also moral direction to our existence. Other times, it has been seen as an inward looking obsession with pleasure or satisfaction at the expense of engagement with the outside world.

So how should we think about the nature and sources of happiness, and whether or not it is a moral value (the kind of thing which imposes obligations either on ourselves or on other people), or just something nice? Read the rest of this entry »


Next Cafe: The Pursuit of Happiness

English: Emotions associated with happiness

English: Emotions associated with happiness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this Café, Dr Chris Groves (Social Sciences, Cardiff University) considers one of the oldest questions in the history of philosophy, regarding what it is that makes life worthwhile and fulfilling.

In recent years, it has become a public as well as a private question, however. Happiness is increasingly on policy agendas, as governments become concerned that their emphasis on measuring economic growth is not telling them enough about the quality of the lives of the people they govern. ‘If you treasure it, measure it’, former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, is reputed to have said.

But in happiness surveys, well-being indices and so on, what is being measured? And how close does this get to what makes us happy? Is happiness the point of living, anyway? Join us in the Cafe Bar at The Gate on 17 March from 8.00 pm to discuss these and other questions.


Next Cafe: Aristotle’s Poetics and Modern Drama

At next week’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe on Tuesday 20 January, Mike Picardie introduces us to Aristotle’s seminal work Poetics, its account of what gives value to dramatic art, and asks whether this account still holds for modernist theatre

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a ...

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aristotle’s Poetics is about classical Greek aesthetics applied broadly to poeisis - creativity as it is manifested in in music, painting, poetry, drama, even in the writing of scientific accounts in biology. To be aesthetically satisfying the work of art or science has to observe the rules of mimesis and anagnorisis – that is, it must represent nature or history in a way which is accurate, and also creates recognition, thus producing pleasure as a result of the skill and accuracy manifested by a work. But is this a necessary feature of any work of art, or is it simply a feature of ancient Greek (and subsequently, Western European) aesthetic values that is projected onto aesthetic experience? Mike will look at tragic drama as an example of Aristotle’s vision of aesthetics, and ask whether modern drama places his assessment in question.

On Aristotle’s account, tragedy as the highest manifestation of dramatic art should feature peripeteia (reversal), subjecting virtuous people to pathos (suffering), leading to catharsis (purging) of eleos (pity) and phrike or phobos (terror). But the greatest modern drama – say Waiting for Godot – arguably represents the pity and terror of a pleasurably poetic fracturing of meaning and we experience catharsis through watching cruelty and participating in humour. Does Aristotle’s account of art still speak to us today?

We will as usual be in the Cafe Bar at The Gate, from 8.00pm. Hope to see you there.


Tuesday’s Cafe: Encounters with Energy

English: Energy infrastructure Electricity cab...

Pylons and a gas main

How much energy we use is, like how much and what kinds of food we eat, is an issue that has taken on, more and more, the characteristics of an intense moral debate. We are told again and again by policymakers to take responsibility for our energy consumption, just as we are for our intake of saturated fat and sugar. But we face all kinds of conflicting advice about how best to respond to the challenge of using less energy or eating more healthily. In this Cafe, Dr Chris Groves from the Cardiff University Energy Biographies project outlined results of research on some of the unexpected ways in which our social environment constrains our choices and makes it difficult to heed such imperatives.

We live in environments that often make it difficult to change our behaviour. This can be at the level of infrastructure: we increasingly need computers and smartphones for shopping, managing finances, communicating with each other. It can be at the level of social norms – what kinds of behaviour and environments are accepted as normal or desirable – as in the standard for indoor heating that assumes that 22°C is the optimal temperature. So we live in environments that encourage us, all the time, to use more energy just as we live in environments where processed food is cheap and easily available all the time. If we live in obesogenic environments, we live in ones that intensify our consumption of energy ones too.

The Energy Biographies project has studied since 2011 our sometimes difficult relationship with energy in our everyday lives, and the ways in which how we use energy is related to our ideas about what it means to live a worthwhile life, a good life. The project is based on the idea that our relationship with energy can come into sharper focus at times of transition – periods in our lives when we pass from one status or social category to another (leaving school, having children, getting married, bereavement, jobs change, moving house). Times of transition are times of uncertainty: what kind of parent will I be? What will life be like after retirement? Changes in how we use energy are part and parcel of such transitions – we do more laundry as parents, take more trips abroad as retirees, or need to use more energy to heat a new house that’s hard to insulate or has more bedrooms.

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An additional Cafe for November: Encounters with Energy

English: Transfer of heat to water kettle

What are the wider implications of how we use energy in our everyday lives? What does energy use tell us about our identities and our relationships with each other? What does how we use energy tell us about the collective ideas we have about the ‘good life’? How might we need to change the ways in which we use energy to achieve a more sustainable society and how can the communities in which we live work together to do this? Join us to discuss these and other issues at this special ‘Energy Café’ on 4 November 2014, which features interactive exhibits developed around research carried out by the Energy Biographies project at Cardiff University and contributions from participants in the research.

As usual for Cardiff Philosophy Cafe, the Cafe will begin at 8.00pm in the Cafe Bar. However, the event will feature exhibits from a recent research exhibition and these will be available to view from 7.00pm on the day.

This event is part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.


Tuesday’s Cafe: Cardiff – The City of Dreadful Knights?

Cardiff castle front, as seen from Castle st.

Cardiff castle front, as seen from Castle st. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes a city? That was the question at the heart of Tuesday’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe, at which Cardiff University Planning & Geography doctoral student Robert Croydon explored the origins and history of Cardiff itself through the lens of the concept of patronage. Throughout the complex story Robert told, we were asked to bear in mind the sometimes contradictory relationships between the intentions of those who pull the strings of planning and their outcomes. Robert drew attention first to unusual aspects of the history of the city in the period where most of the rest of Britain was making a transition from the feudal era proper, through the Reformation, to an era in which land owned by a military elite and the Church was redistributed. What was unusual about Cardiff was that this redistribution of land did not occur, and that feudalism effectively continued to reign until late in the Industrial Revolution.

The power of patronage over planning and architecture was exercised in the city primarily by the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Marquesses of Bute, the 2nd and 3rd Marquesses being responsible for building up the coal trade from the South Wales valleys, building Cardiff docks, and then under the 3rd Marquess overseeing the rapid expansion of the city in the latter decades of the 19th century. The 2nd Marquess was responsible both for leading efforts to put down the Merthyr Rising in 1831, and for ensuring that coal shipping moved from the Glamorganshire canal to Cardiff docks, thus giving him control over  the economic destiny of the city and indeed South Wales. He stopped the extension of the South Wales railway to Swansea, meaning that Cardiff would become South Wales’ major coal port.

Robert argued that patronage, as the example of the Butes shows, can only operate through wielding power, which in Max Weber‘s definition, means the capacity to coerce others to fall in line with one’s intentions, even when their interests would lead them elsewhere – but power which always has several aspects. It involves the capacity to deploy violence if necessary, but also economic power to buy influence and symbolic or cultural power to persuade others to change their beliefs. Power is exercised by patrons, Robert proposed, for reasons other than mere utility. Architecture is an expression of aesthetic, cultural and ideological motives as well as utilitarian ones. The influence exercised particularly by the 3rd Marquess of Bute over the expansion of Cardiff’s residential areas and its parks demonstrated in particular the influence of economic and cultural capital over planning, and the role of aesthetic intentions in shaping architectural legacies.

These legacies present a complex mixture of benign and malign outcomes. The 2nd Marquess’s  championing of the railways saw Cardiff divided into north and south by the railway spines running from east to west, with the area south of the railway associated with the docks, and the area north seeing new residential expansion. Cardiff developed as a company town, like Bournville or Saltaire, only with aristocratic estates added by the 2nd and 3rd Marquesses that reproduced styles of architecture seen in visits to Italy and Austria and later exemplified the Victorian Gothic Revival style. From the initial waves of expansion, other patterns of building followed, creating suburbs outward. In many cases, as with Roath Park, commercial motives were masked under philanthropic ones. The granting of the marshy land for the park by the 3rd Marquess meant that the council had to provide services and infrastructure to the area, which led in turn to an increase in the value of the surrounding land and the building of new houses.

The legacy of the Butes thus presents a mixed picture, with subsequent actors trying to follow in the footsteps of the patrons who decisively shaped Cardiff’s transition from a village to a major port. As the development of Cardiff Bay showed, the absence of a dominating but also guiding vision for planning was keenly felt, with commercial contingencies filling in the gaps, resulting in a miss-mash of buildings. At the same time, the spatial problem of the relationship between the south and north of the city remains unresolved, with the Bay distant from the urban centre and without strong transport or architectural links to it. New patrons have entered the scene, leading to the commissioning of architectural landmarks like the Senedd. Nonetheless, these newer developments still wrestle with the legacy of the city’s 19th century patrons and their autocratic power.

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