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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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.


Next Cafe: Cardiff – The City of Dreadful Knights?

Welsh Assembly

Welsh Assembly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this month’s Cafe, we examine Cardiff – capital of Wales, seat of the Welsh Assembly – through the lens of its economic and political history. How did Cardiff become Cardiff? In this Cafe, Robert Croydon invites us to consider this question and reflects on the role of political and economic power, and especially patronage, in shaping the city in the relatively short span of time since its meteoric rise from a village by the Taff to a wealthy port city. What sort of bargains are involved in patronage? Is it compatible with democracy? When does patronage become paternalism and patronisation? Where is power concentrated now and what are the implications for Cardiff’s future?

We begin at 8.00pm next Tuesday evening, 21 October, in the Cafe Bar at the Gate as usual.

Robert blogs at R. H. Croydon


Last Night’s Cafe: Who owns my genetic information?

A Single Nucleotide Polymorphism is a change o...

A Single Nucleotide Polymorphism is a change of a nucleotide at a single base-pair location on DNA. Created using Inkscape v0.45.1. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night’s CPC featured a topic suggested by Louise Gillies, ‘Who owns my genetic information?’ Chris Groves introduced the session with a short talk covering the nature of genomics, together with some of the ethical issues raised by the nature of genomic information and the technologies which may help us exploit it. The genetic code, consisting of molecules of DNA each formed of some 3 billion base pairs of 4 kinds of nucleic acids, is found in the chromosomes within each cell of a living creature. Around 0.2% of these base pairs are ‘coding’ DNA, which influence how cells make proteins and thus reproduce themselves and thereby the bodies and characteristics (the ‘phenotype’) of living things. The rest is ‘non-coding’ DNA, which was once thought to be functionless (‘junk’) but is now thought to have other regulatory functions within cells. Thanks to its functions in shaping individual development, DNA is often described metaphorically as a ‘blueprint’ or ‘recipe’ for making individual living creatures.

In humans, the advent of sequencing technologies and powerful computers in the 1990s made possible for the first time a complete sequencing of the human genome as part of the Human Genome Project, a ‘map’ of the base pairs that make up human genetic material. Among the hopes expressed for how genomic science could change the world, many geneticists and clinicians spoke of a new era of preventative medicine, based on population studies that would yield knowledge of the links between genetic variants (‘genotypes’) and medical conditions (‘disease phenotypes’). Clinical genetic tests had been around for a while for single-gene conditions (like Huntingdon’s disease) and also for ‘high-penetrance’ genes that were strongly associated with particular conditions (as in the case of the links between the BRCA1/2 genes and breast cancer, for example). But the capability of fully sequencing individual genotypes (or, alternatively – and less expensively – looking for single nucleotide polymorphisms [SNPs] in regions of the genome known to be significant for particular diseases) meant that genomic components for common conditions (such as diabetes or heart disease) involving perhaps thousands of genes could also be identified.

Read the rest of this entry »


Next Cafe: Audience Vote

Vote icon

Cardiff Philosophy Cafe returns this month after a summer break with a new approach. As well as featuring sessions led by researchers on philosophical and social-scientific topics, we will also be featuring more sessions focusing on topics submitted and chosen by audience members, beginning this month on, as usual the 3rd Tuesday, which is September 16. During the session, which will take place as usual in the Cafe Bar at The Gate, up to five topics, questions or problems will be presented for the audience to choose between. The topic which garners the highest number of votes will be the subject of the evening’s discussion.

Anyone can submit a topic, question or problem for consideration. To do so, please use either Facebook or blog  comments facilities below. This allows others to see which topics have been suggested thus far. Questions or problems – rather than broad topics such as ‘relativism’ or ‘mind’ – work best as suggestions. Why not give it a try? We look forward to seeing you at 8.00 pm on the 16th.

UPDATE: the topic for this session will be ‘Who owns my genetic information?’


Last Night’s Cafe: Heidegger vs The Mobile

What is your relationship with your mobile/smartphone like?

“If I don’t have my mobile with me, I feel as though I have lost something. I’m not OK. There’s something missing. I turn off the ring tone when I take the bus, or when I’m in the mosque. But I never turn the mobile off.” (Afghan Student, Peshawar, from Sadie Plant (2002), On the Mobile [PDF])

Our dependence on mobile phones is, for many people, very marked: they make us feel part of the ‘safe world’ through being connected to people we care about, emergency services, and increasingly through smartphone technology, to the shopping, information, banking and other services available through the internet. Their relatively speedy introduction and spread through societies globally is, for some, accompanied by slower, pervasive and unwelcome shifts in our social behaviours, our relationships with others, and even in our sense of what it means to be human. Mark Fisher writes that

“the insatiable urge to check messages, email or Facebook is a compulsion, akin to scratching an itch which gets worse the more one scratches. Like all compulsions, this behaviour feeds on dissatisfaction. If there are no messages, you feel disappointed and check again very quickly. But if there are messages you also feel disappointed: no amount of messages is ever enough.” (The Privatisation of Stress)

So, is ‘the mobile’ changing us? Rupert Jenkinson provided us at last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe with some ideas we might use in thinking about the answer to this question. Read the rest of this entry »

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