Tag Archives: Philosophy

Have the British finally learnt how to express their emotions?

Jenny Chowdhury took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘Emotion’ as a philosophical keyword, especially in the context of British culture and history.

Can we confidently admit to knowing what ‘emotion’ means? If someone asked you about its definition, what would you say? You could give examples of it such as happiness, sadness and anger. But what does it mean and how do we understand the term today?

Our use of the term ‘emotion’ today is connected to the use of emoticons on social media, not only do we use it on a day-to-day basis, but I want to argue that the younger generation, especially, are overusing it to the extent that we no longer genuinely feel the emotions that we portray on social media. Last year, Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was . The use of emoticons/ emojis is clearly taking over our use of language! This is an interesting concept linking to the study on the philosophy of emotion which covers a number of different fields, making the definition even harder to grasp.

To give you a quick history of emoticons and where it came from I came across an interesting article by Tim Slavin. Slavin states that ‘the modern history of emoticons grew out of an interesting side effect of technology: typed messages on a computer screen appear neutral and can be difficult to translate emotionally.’[i] Amy-Mae Elliott expresses how a satirical magazine called Puck used emoticons a hundred years ago when writing about passion and emotions. Some argue that Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist was the first to use symbols to convey emotions through text. Our increasing need for using emoticons when communicating with our friends indicates a new level of expressing ourselves. The term ‘emotion’ appears in a number of discourses such as science, philosophy, popular culture and psychology.

Whatsapp Emoticons

Whatsapp Emoticons

The key thinkers behind the philosophy of ‘emotion’ in Britain are Thomas Brown and Charles Bell during the 1800s. Recently, Thomas Dixon and Fay Alberti have researched the history of emotion. Dixon concentrates on how the term has been in crisis since its connection with psychology in the nineteenth century.

The Greeks used pathos as an alternative to emotion; ‘that which happens to a person or thing.’[ii]  ‘Emotion’ derived from the French word ‘émotion’ which meant physical disturbance and bodily movement in the seventeenth century. The term was first used by John Florio who was a translator of Michel de Montaigne’s essays. During the eighteenth century the definition of ‘emotion’ moved from bodily movements to mental states and instinctive feelings such as pleasure and grief. Close attention was given to the term in the eighteenth century where it was connected to mental experiences. Its theoretical use was influenced by Thomas Brown, Charles Bell and William James in the nineteenth century. Bell’s Anatomy of Expression focused on the artistic portrayal of emotion.

Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org BELL, Sir Charles {1774-1842} Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of expression in painting, London: Longman, 1806. Page 142 - Wonder / Fear / Astonishment. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
BELL, Sir Charles {1774-1842}
Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of expression
in painting, London: Longman, 1806.
Page 142 – Wonder / Fear / Astonishment.

In 1836, William Whewell stated how his notion of desires of human nature being linked to emotions was not accepted. The history of ‘emotion’ dates back to the time of the Stoics who believed that emotions were diseases of the soul which could only be cured through reason. However, for Thomas Aquinas, passions and affections were different parts of the soul where one is the sense appetite and the other is intellectual appetite.[iii]

During the eighteenth century, there was a move towards sensibility alongside passions. Human feelings were categorised into either a violent type of ‘passion’ or a milder ‘moral sentiment’.[iv] A new category for ‘emotion’ in the nineteenth century was invented by Thomas Brown. Brown used the previous connotations such as passions and affections to put them all under one category of ‘emotions.’ This new category dwells on the science of the mind and how ‘emotion’ was used to understand feelings, pleasures, affections, etc.[v] Brown’s definition for ‘emotion’ was that ‘they may be defined to be vivid feelings, arising immediately from the consideration of objects, perceived, or remembered, or imagined, or from other prior emotions.’[vi]

Charles Bell is an important figure as he linked ‘emotion’ to a movement of the mind where affections of the mind were made visible through signs on the face or body. Bell and Brown differed in their opinions towards what constituted an emotion, whether it was primarily mental or bodily. Discussions are still taking place on whether the heart of emotions lie in the heart or the brain.[vii]

Charles Darwin was interested in Charles Bell’s illustrations in his Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression’. However, he noticed that Bell did not explain why different muscles are used for different emotions, for example the arching of eyebrows and mouth expressions. ‘The movements of expression give vividness and energy to our spoken words. They reveal the thoughts and intentions of others more truly than do words, which may be falsified.’[viii]

William James wrote an article called ‘What Is an Emotion?’ in 1884 which opened it up to the public and still to this day there is no definitive meaning behind ‘emotion’. He concluded that emotions were mental feelings brought about by the perception of an object in the world. However, this was not agreed to universally. Dixon’s article, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, puts forward an interesting case for the importance of keywords which pose as mirrors and motors for showing social and intellectual change. Concepts are created through giving new meanings to words that are already in our vocabulary.

A century ago, Britain was known for its ‘stiff upper lip’ from the death of Charles Dickens in 1870 until the death of Winston Churchill in 1965. People of this period did not show their emotions. Dixon covers the gendered nature of tears in Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears. ‘The idea that there was something feminine about tears was never entirely erased.[ix]  Ute Frevert argues that gender ‘“naturalised” emotions while at the same time connecting them to distinct social practices and performances.’[x] Both genders had emotions but they differ in intensity. She argues that ‘emotions, above all social or “relational” emotions, are deeply cultural.’[xi] ‘When humans label their own feelings, those labels begin to give their feelings shape and direction. This is what culture and language do for and to us.’[xii]

In particular regards to the period after the Second World War, a youth group of angry young men emerged in popular culture. British novelists and playwrights expressed their dissatisfaction with the government and class system. John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, represented this new movement. The focus was on the lives of the working class and their typical daily tasks. It shocked the audience as kitchen sink realism was a developing cultural movement in the late 1950s.

A scene from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1959). The constant props of tea-sets on set and the look of anger on the main character, Jimmy, embodies the angry young man movement.

Kleenex ® commissioned SIRC to find out how British people felt about displaying [emotions] [http://www.sirc.org/publik/emotion.shtml] publicly. This emphasises the change in attitudes from a previous ‘stiff upper lip’ stance where it was shameful to show any type of emotions, especially for men. The questions that arises are; is it acceptable to cry and is there a gendered aspect to it? Should emotions be kept private? The report discusses reality shows such as X Factor and Big Brother which publicise a range of different emotions. How do the audience respond to the extent of their emotional journey? There have been studies which conclude that letting out pain and relief through tears works towards improving your well-being, so why is there such a taboo over being too emotional? Should we break out of the conventional view and be able to fully express how we feel in the world that we live in today? The report states that ‘71% of women have ‘let it out’ in the past 6 months by crying compared with 28% of men.’[xiii]

‘We are better at talking about our emotions than in previous generations.’[xiv]

Do you agree with this statement, and if you do, why? Do you think Britain has finally given in to emotions?

I typed in ’emotion’ on YouTube and a number of songs were listed. I have chosen a recent song for this post for you to ponder about. The chorus focuses on emotion and the intensity of feelings can be experienced through her voice. Have a listen and let your emotions run wild.

Word cloud image of this blog-post. A visual image to accompany this post to see what really encapsulates the term 'emotion'.

Word cloud image of this blog-post. A visual image to accompany this post to see what really encapsulates the term ’emotion’.


[i] Tom Slavin, ‘History of Emoticons’, Off Beat (May 2014) <https://www.kidscodecs.com/history-of-emoticons/> [accessed February 2016].

[ii] A. W. Price, ‘Chapter 5: Emotions in Plato and Aristotle’, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion ed. Peter Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 121.

[iii] Thomas Dixon, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, Emotion Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 2012), p. 399.

[iv] Ibid., p. 399.

[v] Ibid., p. 340.

[vi] Thomas Brown, Thomas Brown: Selected philosophical writings ed. T. Dixon (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1820/2010), pp. 145-6

[vii] Fay Bound Alberti , Matters of the Heart: History, medicine, emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[viii] Charles Darwin, The expression of the emotions in man and animals (London: John Murray, 1872) p. 366.

[ix] Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 98.

[x] Ute Frevert, Emotions in History – Lost and Found (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011), p. 11.

[xi] Ibid., p. 211.

[xii] James M. Jasper, ‘Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 37 (April, 2011) p. 298.

[xiii] ‘Britain: A nation of emotion?’, Social Issues Research Centre (January 2007).

[xiv] Ibid.

Further Reading

‘Angry Young Men’, Encyclopaedia Britannica <http://www.britannica.com/topic/Angry-Young-Men>.

Fay Alberti Bound, Matters of the Heart: History, medicine, emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

‘Britain: A nation of emotion?’, Social Issues Research Centre (January 2007).

Thomas Brown, Thomas Brown: Selected philosophical writings ed. T. Dixon (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1820/2010).

Thomas Dixon, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, Emotion Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 2012), pp. 338 – 344.

Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015).

Amy-Mae Elliott, ‘A Brief History of the Emoticon’, Mashable (September 2011).

Emotion Review <http://emr.sagepub.com/content/4/4/338.abstract>.

Ute Frevert, Emotions in History – Lost and Found (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011).

S. Jacyna, ‘Bell, Sir Charles(1774–1842)’,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.

James M. Jasper, ‘Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 37 (April, 2011), pp. 285-303.

‘emotion, n.’, OED Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, February 2016).

W. Price, ‘Chapter 5: Emotions in Plato and Aristotle’, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion ed. Peter Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Tim Slavin, ‘The History of Emoticons’, Off Beat (May 2014).




Poppy Waring took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘egoism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Egoism is hardly a word that you’re likely to come across in your day to day life. In fact, I’d happily put bets on some high percentage of people having no definition to hand. Despite this, it’s also not exactly hard to grasp roughly what it discusses. ‘Ego’ is the self. As egoism stems off from this word, it encapsulates all philosophies linked to self-interest. These days it has also become linked to hedonism (as the press release for the egoistmobile ‘The Egoist’ tells us), probably due the worlds continued confusion between words that only have a few letters difference between them.

Something which became clear when I started my research for this blog was that there is a LOT of confusion regarding the differences between egoism and egotism. So, to clarify, here’s the differences:

  • The definition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary of egotist is ‘The obtrusive or too frequent use of the pronoun of the first person singular: hence the practice of talking about oneself or one’s doings.’
  • So egoism is more abstract and a course of actions, where as egotism require an personal involvement to be discussed.
  • Egoism is self-interest, where as egotism is self-obsession.

In the present day, we are probably far more familiar with the term egotism since it so often seems to come up when talking about celebrity culture. So in present day popular culture, Kanye West, is the prime example of egotism – his self professed love of his self, and placing of himself as the most important person alive right now could be the distilled essence of egotism. Yet I suppose if he’s acting like this purely to get exposure, there is an argument that his actions are egoistic… Probably best to avoid dwelling on that for now though…

One of the earliest examples of egoism in writing can be found in the works of Hobbes. In Leviathan, he states that ‘No man giveth but with intention of good to himself; because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts the object to every man is his own pleasure’. It is this that would shape psychological egoism, countering the common hailing of altruism by religion. Skipping ahead, Max Stirner would advance the discussion of egoism away from purely psychological egoism and ethical egoism, going on to become one of the most influential writers on the subject. His exploration of the concepts found in ‘The Ego and His Own’, would bring egoism into then modern concepts, such as anarchism, libertarianism and individualism.

If you allow me to make a rather sweeping tour of the philosophical writings on egoism, one also can’t ignore the impact of Nietzches writing. It would shape the writing of most after him on the subject, whilst due to the notoriety of his linking with the ideologies of Nazism. It also would be where Marx and Engel would find a source of critism from which to build their own theories of Marxism/communism. Nietzche, argues that at our hearts we all follow egoism, but does not believe this is a bad thing – in true Neitzsche style he remains pretty silent on the moral implications on this, purely attempting to understand the way the world works. 

Egoism started to appear in popular culture. Some of the key British thinkers, writers and artist of the period, the Bloomsbury group, which would carry through in to the Edwardian era. Writers such as Erza Ound, Richard Adlington and T.S. Eliot would champion the self. Many of these ideas would be published, either in their own books or in Dora Marsdens influencial publication ‘The Egoist’. Whilst ‘The Egoist’ was an intellectual magazine, written for the educated middle classes, it also was published as all modern magazines would be. Unlike journals, it also contained advertising, and readers could write in to express their thoughts on articles from previous issues. 

The objective of the Women Movement being the development of the individual Ego… it appeals to the spirit of woman – Dora Marsden

Dora Marsden’s publications would go on to shape the progression of the feminist movement. Marsden played a large role in progressing feminism on from suffragettes, who were relatively altruistic in their actions and arguments. From around 1912 onwards, as the Freewoman became the New Freewoman, and the New Freedwoman became the Egoist, Dora Marsden moved away from the suffragette moment, towards a feminism which has far more similarities with todays feminism than the so called first wave. Other writers from this era, such as Virginia Wolfe would also find a sense of their self in the principles of egoism and feminism. In the footsteps of Marsden, as an egoist philosophy. The writer Rose Young would later describe feminism as concerning individualistic self development – crucial meaning that egoism in the realm of empowerment is not inherently selfish. Women for centuries have been expected to be altruistic, caring for their families at the expense of being able to explore their own identities and capabilities. Whilst men have been taught to always be egoistic firstly, and to strive towards altruism, women have always been expected to already be altruistic, and so egoism is a revelation to women allowing for self discovery and empowerment.

Whilst egoism fell out of popular favour throughout the war period, there were still a handful of writers who would carry to baton on from earlier writers such as Nietzsche and Stirner, developing their theories on egoism. Perhaps the most influential of these was Ayn Rand. In her work, The Virtue of Selfishness she makes the case for selfishness, reminding us that we inherently fear the criticism as we are told it is a negative trait. Whilst in popular culture, the rise of socialism, free love and hippie culture in the 60s would suggest the continuing trend away from egoism. Yet if we actually take a close examination of the protests we find that actually pretty much all of them actually have self interest at their hearts. The most obvious example of this would be the movement of sexual liberation, and as previously stated the feminist movement as was concerned with allowing women to be as egoist as men had been allowed to be for centuries. Even outside of this though, the anti-war protests, were often about preventing the self being sent to war as their more altruistic parents and grandparents had been. There is probably an argument for many social protests since the 60s being more egoistic than we would like to imagine – from the miners strikes, to the marchs of students for free education.

Rands work, outside of her own fiction writing such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, would go on to influence those in many other unlikely fields, which would lead to her understanding of egoism permeating the public psyche even to the present day. For instance it is said that the comic book writers Steve Dikto and Frank Miller of Spiderman and Batman fame accordingly found some inspiration for the nature of their heroes in Rands writing. And with the continued popularity of comic book adaptions and the ‘antihero’, I think it would be fair to say that the idea of the self-serving anti-hero is pretty big in the present. I’ve been told that Deadpool is a pretty Randian (anti)hero…

And so we return to the present day. Whilst you might not see ‘EGOISM’ in flashing lights anywhere, it remains a constant in oour understanding of actions. In psychology, we continue to analyse whether we do anything for truly altruistic purposes. Just as the self remains a continuing obsession, we continue to live in an egoistic society. With the continued championing of ‘follow our dreams’, it seems pretty logical that This asides, what is clear, is that in todays society, where capitalism reigns supreme unchallenged, egoism is just another fact of life, and therefore has fallen out of common discourse.



Lucy Delap, The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the Early Twentieth Century

Mark s. Morrisson, The Public Face Of Modernism: Little Magazones, Audiences, and Reception

Eleanor M. Sickels, The Gloomy Egoist: Moods and Themese of Melancholy from Gray to Keats, (New York, Octagon Books, 1969)

(ed) Peter Singer, Ethics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)


David Ashford, ‘A New Concept of Egoism:The Late Modernism of Ayn Rand‘, Modernism/modernity, Volume 21, Number 4, November 2014,

Michael Slote, ‘Egoism and Emotion‘, Philosophia, June 2013, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 313-335


Oxford English Dictionary

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy


Common Sense

Isabel Overton took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘common sense’ as a philosophical keyword.

As a result of studying in one of the most expensive cities in the world, upon moving to London in September 2013 I found myself working part time in the supermarket chain Waitrose. Located in a particularly affluent area of London it boasted a continuous stream of business professionals and upper middle class families. Working in such an environment it is no surprise that I have been witness and recipient of many ‘unique’ queries. Whilst some have provided vast entertainment during an otherwise tedious shift (I once had a man ask me where we kept the ‘premium houmous’) others have been baffling in their lack of what we would call ‘common sense’. It would seem that many people, so drained from their fast paced city lives, seem to have no energy left to try and manoeuvre the minor speed bumps they may face when doing a food shop. I’m sure i’m not alone in being familiar with the phrase ‘use your common sense’, but how productive are we actually being when urging someone to tap into their inner instinct. Furthermore, where does the term ‘common sense’ stem from, and how common, or sensible, is it?

Greek philosopher Aristotle coined the term ‘common sense’ to describe a sense that unified all five human senses, such as sight and smell, allowing humans and animals to distinguish multiple senses within the same object. This came in response to a theory put forward by Plato that all senses worked individually from one another but were then integrated within the soul where an active thinking process took place, making the senses instruments of the thinking part of man. In Plato’s view, the senses were not integrated at the level of perception, but at the level of thought and thus the unifying sense was not actually a kind of ‘sense’ at all. Aristotle on the other hand, attributed the common sense to animals and humans alike, but believing animals could not think rationally, moved the act of perception out of Plato’s rational thinking soul and into the sensus communis, which was something like thinking and something like a sense, but not rational. He also located it within the heart, as he saw this as the master organ.[1]

“Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it”[2]

– Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

French Philosopher Rene Descartes

French Philosopher Rene Descartes

Contemporary definition can be summed up as the basic ability to judge and perceive things shared by the majority of the population. Father of modern western philosophy, French philosopher Rene Descartes, in Discourse on Method established this when he stated that everyone had a similar and sufficient amount of common sense. He went on to claim however, that it was rarely used well and he called for a skeptical logical method to follow, warning against over reliance upon common sense.

During the Enlightenment common sense came to be seen more favourably as a result of works by philosophers such as religiously trained Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid. Often described as a ‘common sense philosopher’ Reid developed a philosophical perspective that provided common sense as the source of justification for certain philosophical knowledge. Reid wrote in response to the increase in scepticism put forward by philosophers such as David Hume, who held an empiricist view towards the theory of ideas, arguing that reason and knowledge were only developed through experience or through active research.[3] Reid, alongside other like-minded philosophers including Dugald Stewart and James Beattie, formed the Scottish School of Common Sense, arguing that common sense beliefs automatically governed human lives and thought. This theory became popular in England, France and America during the early nineteenth century, before losing popularity in the latter part of the period.

Political philosopher Thomas Paine

Political philosopher Thomas Paine

In terms of American influence Reid’s philosophy was pervasive during the American Revolution. England born political philosopher and writer Thomas Paine was a key advocate of common sense realism, and used it to advocate American independence. Published in 1776, his highly influential pamphlet Common Sense conveyed the message that to understand the nature of politics, all it took was common sense. Selling around 150,000 copies in 1776 during a time when the rate of illiteracy was high amongst the American population, Common Sense was both a tribute to the persuasiveness of Paine’s argument and his ability to simplify complex rhetoric.[4]

In the early twentieth century British philosopher G. E. Moore developed a treatise to defend Thomas Reid’s argument titled A Defense of Common Sense, that had a profound effect on the methodology of twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy.[5] This essay listed several seemingly obvious truths including “There exists at this time a living human body which is my body” arguing against philosophers who held the idea that even ‘true’ propositions could be partially false.[6] He greatly influenced Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who, having previously known Moore during time spent in England, was reintroduced to his work when a former student was wrestling with his response to external world skepticism. Inspired, Wittgenstein began to work on a series of remarks, eventually published posthumously as On Certainty, that proposed there must be some things exempt from doubt in order for human practices to be possible.

The philosophical debate surrounding common sense shows itself as complex and immersed with disunity, so it is important to view how modern society has taken the idea of common sense and what platforms of discussion it features in. Whilst many people take for granted what they assume to be an innate natural instinct, it seems that over the past two decades there has been an increasing documented lament over the decrease in common sense within society as a whole. In 1998 author Lori Borgman released an essay entitled The Death of Common Sense in which she remarked:

“A most reliable sage, he was credited with cultivating the ability to know when to come in out of the rain, the discovery that the early bird gets the worm and how to take the bitter with the sweet.”[7]

She then noted the decline of ‘Common Sense’s’ health in the late 1960’s when “he became infected with the If-It-Feels-Good, Do-It virus”[8]. It is unsurprising that countless idle news stories reporting the ‘misgivings’ of people who appear too incompetent to make the most basic decisions has led to such a cynical outlook on how sound societies judgment is. An example that springs to mind is the plethora of multi million pound lottery winners who spend all their money within a year only to find themselves in debt wondering where it all went wrong. This is something reiterated within psychologist and professor Jim Taylor’s article Common Sense is Neither Common nor Senseand instead he argues for a focus on ‘reasoned sense’ as opposed to ‘common sense’.

Naturally, this perceived lack of common sense has led many to question how common it really is. According to Voltaire common sense was not so common[9] but the more accurate assumption might be to suggest it was not so commonly used in particular situations; on the down side this is not nearly as memorable. Nevertheless, education teaches us to make decisions based on careful, calculated thought, something that people lacking education fail to do. Whilst almost all people have common sense, it is usually those who are more intellectually capable that ‘fail’ to use it, at least initially, when in the process of basic problem solving. This is through over-calculating however, not under-calculating, and ultimately not an accurate measure of capability.

Some theorists believe that educational intellect can clash with basic common sense

Educational intellect does not impact the amount of common sense people hold

Many lighthearted studies have been done that test this theory, one of the most popular being to have a child and adult solve the same simple brainteaser. Studies seem to suggest that a child is more likely to solve a simple problem faster than an adult, as their lack of knowledge disallows them to overcomplicate the problem put in front of them. An example of this is found in the short clip featured below:

This use of common sense is of course unique to brain teasers and jovial mind games, and through the course of day to day life, the majority of the population are unwittingly using their common sense concisely, whether it be to look both ways before they cross the street, or to let their coffee cool down before taking a sip.

It has been argued however, that group judgment can impair individual common sense, thus providing debate towards how significant it is when used as a means of judgment. Social theorist Stuart Chase is believed to have remarked that common sense was that which told us the world was flat, putting focus on the semantic ‘common’ in its raw sense to mean widespread, that is to say, consensus of opinion.[10]

Group judgment can impair individual thinking

Group judgment can impair individual thinking

In 1841 Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds observed: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”[11] It is natural for something to gain credibility the more universally it is agreed upon or known, but this does not necessarily make it right. For example, studies have shown that the commonly held belief of never waking a sleepwalker as it is dangerous is actually a myth. Whilst they may find themselves disorientated upon being woken, the act itself is not harming.[12]

Through all this we have seen the reshaping, acceptance, memorial, criticism and dissection of the term, and use of, common sense, and it is ultimately personal opinion that can decipher how prevalent an individual will view it. Some pride themselves on their developed intelligence through precision schooling, whereas others prefer to boast of their natural intelligence. All this aside, I am sure I stand in the majority when I admit that this natural guide has helped me maneuver my way out of a tricky situation on more than one occasion, and so for that I am happy to look upon it favourably as a silent guardian, justified or not.

[1]Gregoric, Pavel, Aristotle on the common sense, Word Press, https://arcaneknowledgeofthedeep.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/aristotleoncommonsense.pdf

[2] Descartes, Renes, Discourse on Method 1635, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/descartes/1635/discourse-method.htm, [accessed 19th February, 2016]

[3] David Hume, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, http://plato.standford.edu/entries/hume/, [accessed 15th February, 2016]

[4] Thomas Paine, History, http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/thomas-paine, [accessed 19th February, 2016]

[5] Philosophy of Common Sense, New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Philosophy_of_Common_Sense, [accessed 15th February 2016]

[6] Mattey, G. J., Common sense epistemology, UC Davis Philosophy 02, http://hume.ucdavis.edu/mattey/phi102f03/moore.html

[7] Borgman, Lori, The Death of Common Sense, http://www.loriborgman.com/1998/03/15/the-death-of-common-sense/, [accessed 15th February 2016]

[8] Ibid.

[9] Voltaire, A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary, Oxford World’s Classics, 2011

[10] Hayakawa, S. I. and Hayakawa, A. R., Language in Thought and Action, Harvest Original; 5th ed. 1991, p.18

[11] Mackay, Charles, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Wordsworth Reference, 1995, p.xv

[12] Future, BBC, bbc.com/future/story/20120208-it-is-dangerous-to-wake-a-sleepwa, [accessed 19th February, 2016]


Further Reading

Lori Borgman, The Death of Common Sensehttp://www.loriborgman.com/1998/03/15/the-death-of-common-sense/

Ian Glynn, An Anatomy of Thought: The Origin of Machinery of the Mind, (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Pavel Gregoric, Aristotle on common sense, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, (Harvest Original; 5th ed. 1991)

Philosophy of Common Sense, New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Philosophy_of_Common_Sense


Sophia Patel took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘materialist’ as a philosophical keyword.

What do Kanye West, Karl Marx and Lucretius have in common?

While this may sound like the set up for a terribly unfunny joke, rather than the introduction to the history of a philosophical word, it is not. What these three all share is that they could all be identified by the word ‘materialist.’

Although I cannot comment on whether or not Kanye believes that ‘physical matter is the…fundamental reality and that all being…can be explained as manifestations… of matter,’ in the philosophical sense of the word, the popular economically focused definition, of ‘a preoccupation with material…things’ seems to fit him to a tee.[1]

The fact that materialism as a word, contains three very different concepts (philosophical, historical and economic) makes its history fascinating to track and raises questions as to links between the concepts: If someone holds the belief that all there is is matter, is that individual more likely to value material things? It seems this is not the case.

Philosophical materialists, in the simplest sense, argue that all of reality can be reduced down to the organisation of matter in a certain way. While idealists such as Plato argued that mind and matter were separate and that mind ruled over matter, materialists have argued that there is no such thing as a separate ‘mind.’ Mechanical materialism as a theory states that the world is made up of imperceptibly small objects that interact with each other. This theory denies the existence of immaterial things such as the mind. However, since more is now understood about the difference between matter and energy, the usage of the term materialism has evolved to include those who  base their philosophy on physics to explain existence. This Physics based materialism has been termed ‘physicalistic materialism.’[2]


Democritus, one of the fathers of materialism. Image Credit: Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2016

The materialist tradition entered both Eastern and Western philosophy in approximately the fifth century BCE, with the Carvaka school of philosophy in India and the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus in the West. Democritus argued that the world and everything in it, including the soul, was made up of nothing but atoms and empty space. Epicurus would go on to develop Democritus’ views, adapting and expanding his idea of atoms and how their collisions resulted in free will. These ideas continued to be built upon in the first century BCE in Rome, where the Epicurean, Lucretius penned The Nature of Things, outlining his materialist views.

Materialism enjoyed little popularity through the medieval period, possibly because, as a theory, it is naturally secular, denying the existence of anything but matter. In Britain, it was not until the early seventeenth century that Thomas Hobbes, remembered often for his political philosophy, asserted his materialist ideas. He believed that humans and their minds were entirely material, later even extending this to the belief that God too was a material being. However, this was not a popular or mainstream strand of philosophical thinking in Britain at this time. The tradition gained more popularity in France through the eighteenth century, though this could largely be ascribed to the negativity facing orthodox Christianity at this time.

Materialist thought was strengthened in Britain by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which helped to prove the similarities that existed between animals and humans, as well as provide an alternative explanation to the design argument.


U.T. Place and his brain. Is his consciousness stored in there? Image Credit: University of Adelaide

The mid twentieth-century, with its increasing knowledge of physics and biochemistry, meant a resurgence in the popularity of philosophical materialism. British philosopher, U.T. Place penned his ‘Is Consciousness a Brain Process?’ in 1956 while teaching in Australia. This paper, with its thesis regarding mental states’ relationship with neural states, helped to cement Place and his theory in the centre of modern materialist philosophy. However, while earlier scientific advancement frequently served philosophical materialism’s interests, advancing knowledge of physics towards the end of the twentieth century has meant that materialism has increasingly come under fire. This criticism has frequently originated in Britain, with the English philosopher Mary Midgley criticising materialism for failing to define what matter actually consists of. [3] Similarly, the English physicist Paul Davies argued that materialism has been disproven by scientific findings. This was demonstrated in  his 1991 book The Matter Myth with John Gribbin in which they argue ‘Quantum physics undermines materialism because it reveals that matter has far less ‘substance’ than we might believe. But another development goes even further… this development is the theory of chaos.[4]

While the philosophical concept of materialism may not seem like a topic that would easily translate into popular culture, some materialist ideas do occasionally disseminate into popular discourse, particularly in America. The American Atheists founder Madalyn O’Hair based her form of atheism on the materialist idea that nothing exists but natural matter. Materialism is also the subject of American punk rock band, Bad Religion’s, 2002 song ‘Materialist.’ The song, while obviously not focussing on the minute details of philosophical materialism does raise several of the concepts, stating ‘mind over matter, it really don’t matter.’ The fact that this was one of the few mentions philosophical materialism received in popular culture suggests that it a more learned theory that has not spread very far into wider society.

Materialist in the economic or ethical sense is used to identify someone interested in the enjoyment and comforts that material possessions bring. Economic materialism is closely linked to social issues such as class, in which social positioning and success is often determined by one’s material possessions.

As early as the fifth century BCE Socrates spoke out against economic materialism asking What is the point of walls and warships and glittering statues if the men who build them are not happy? However, now more than ever we exist in a society where materialism and the constant drive to possess more ‘things’ is always there; from television, to popular music, to targeted advertising on social media. Material culture is so pervasive that an American survey found that one in every fourteen people would murder someone in exchange for three million dollars.[5]

A key area for the dissemination of materialistic ideologies is through rap and hip hop culture. British rapper Tinie Tempah’s 2010 hit Miami 2 Ibiza reads more like a list of brands and labels than a song at times, as he sings ‘I got a black BM, she got a white TT, She wanna see what’s hiding in my CK briefs.’ While this may be a slightly more subdued list when compared to the yachts and bentleys listed by American rappers, the fact remains that it links the importance of material possessions to success and status in society.


Macklemore and Ryan Lewis encouraging us to be thrifty. Image Credit: Macklemore, 2012

In response to materialistic culture and the recent financial difficulties that have plagued America and Britain, artists such as Macklemore in his 2012 hit ‘Thrift Shop’ have attempted to distance themselves from such themes. In the song he praises bargain hunting while simultaneously mocking materialist culture stating ‘They be like, “Oh, that Gucci – that’s hella tight. I’m like, Yo – that’s fifty dollars for a T-shirt… I call that getting tricked by a business’ Alongside the song, Macklemore instructed fans to look for his merchandise at thrift shops to avoid the increased prices at venues. Indeed, while popular culture is often responsible for driving economic materialism in culture, it is also a conduit for spreading ideas against materialism. Chuck Palahniuk lamented in his 1996 novel Fight Club, as did the 1999 film of the same name, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

While in philosophy, ‘Materialist’ has usually been used in the philosophical sense, it does not mean that philosophers have ignored economic materialism as a concept. Bertrand Russell, condemned economic materialism, stating that: ‘It is a preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else that prevents us from living freely and nobly.’

Dialectical or historical materialism has also been a more common usage of the word. Materialism in this sense was made popular by the fact that it was the common philosophy of the communist countries. Dialectical materialism is a theory of how changes occur throughout the history of humanity. Karl Marx was the first to identify as a historical materialist in the nineteenth century. This theory suggested that the material conditions of society’s mode of production were what ultimately defined its ability to develop and organise itself. He stated that people “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.” However, since Marx created this concept the theory has been modified and adopted by Marxists and non-Marxists alike. [6]

One word with three very different meanings and even more different histories. Though there is apparently no real link between economic and philosophical materialism, their evolution as words in relation to one another is fascinating. Philosophical materialism is constantly advancing to make use of new discoveries in physics and the sciences, but still remains rooted in the same ideas expressed by Democritus. Economic materialism, though popular culture occasionally attempts to fight against it, has however, become a almost inescapable part of modern life.


[1] Merriam Webster Dictionary, ‘Materialism’ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/materialism

[2] John Jamieson Carswell Smart, ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica,’ Materialism http://www.britannica.com/topic/materialism-philosophy

[3] Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (London: Routledge, 2003)

[4] Paul Davies and John Gribbin, The Matter Myth: Dramatic Discoveries that Challenge Our Understanding of Physical Reality (London: Simon & Schuster, 1991)

[5] Bernice Kanner, Are You Normal about Money? (Princeton: Bloomberg Press, 2001)

[6] Paul D’Amato, ‘Why was Marx a materialist?’ (2011), http://socialistworker.org/2011/10/28/why-was-marx-a-materialist

Further Reading

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859)

Paul Davies and John Gribbin, The Matter Myth: Dramatic Discoveries that Challenge Our Understanding of Physical Reality (London: Simon & Schuster, 1991)

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (1651) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3207

Bettany Hughes, ‘Socrates – a Man For Our Times,’ The Guardian, (2010), http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/17/socrates-philosopher-man-for-our-times

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, (50 BCE) http://classics.mit.edu/Carus/nature_things.1.i.html

Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (London: Routledge, 2003)

Madalyn O’Hair, Why I Am an Atheist: Including a History of Materialism (New Jersey: American Atheists Press, 1991)

U.T. Place, ‘Is Consciousness a Brain Process?,’ British Journal of Psychology, 47:1 (1956)


Charlie Roden took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘happiness’ as a philosophical keyword, with the help of Charlie Brown.

Extract from the comic-strip ‘Peanuts’. Image from http://www.philipchircop.com/post/15448312238/incidentally-what-is-happiness-do-whatever

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘happiness’ is defined as ‘the state of being happy’, that is, ‘feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.’[1]  Happiness is a universal concept which, I believe, most people aspire to achieve. However, since happiness is so subjective, everyone interprets it in different ways.

Many people believe that they attain happiness when they eat their favourite food, buy new clothes or earn a lot of money. Although these are all experiences that can be enjoyed, they don’t actually cause happiness- they only bring us pleasure.  Of course, the official definition of ‘happiness’ does include pleasure, however I agree with Happiness International who suggest that pleasure is only short-lived and externally motivated. If happiness relied on pleasures such as the ones just mentioned, does this suggest that without a lot of money or materialistic items people are unhappy?

I don’t believe that anyone can truly define ‘happiness’, and by looking at the history of this word we can see how its cultural and philosophical meanings have changed over time, demonstrating that happiness cannot simply be understood as a single concept.

‘Happiness’ stems from the late fourteenth-century word ‘hap’ meaning ‘good luck’ or ‘chance’. [2] This suggests then that in the Middle Ages, a person was believed to be happy if they had good fortune.  Already, we can see how a modern perspective of ‘happiness’ is different to this idea, as although being lucky can promote happiness, we can often feel happy without being fortunate.

The sole predecessor to the idea of ‘happiness’ was proposed by Aristotle (384-322 BC). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasised that the ultimate aim in life is ‘Eudaimonia’, an Ancient Greek term usually translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘human growth.’ [3]

Unlike an emotional state, such as pleasure, Aristotle asserted that Eudaimonia is about reaching your full potential and flourishing as a person. In order to do this, you need to live a life that is wholesome and virtuous to attain the best version of yourself. [4] Virtue can be achieved through balance and moderation, as this way of life leads to ‘the greatest long-term value’ rather than just pleasure that is short-lived.  [5] In a modern-day perspective, this would be the difference between earning vast sums of money but spending it all at once, as opposed to spending money wisely, ensuring it will last and provide you with a good life. [6]

In the early modern era, the importance of happiness began to emerge in the political sphere. [7] In 1726, the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) wrote that

‘that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery.’ [8]

This utilitarian principle, which aims at the greatest happiness of the greatest number, essentially asserts than an action is right if it produces happiness and wrong if it produces the reverse of happiness. [9]

Jeremy Bentham 1748 – 1832

Jeremy Bentham, image from http://sueyounghistories.com/archives/2010/06/13/jeremy-bentham-1748-%E2%80%93-1832/

The most famous advocate of utilitarianism was English philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham proposed many social and legal reforms, such as complete equality for both sexes, and put forward the idea that legislation should be based on morality. [10] Identifying the good with pleasure, in his 1781 book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham wrote:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.’  [11]

By stating that happiness can be understood in terms of the balance of pleasure over pain, Bentham shares an ethical Hedonistic claim; the notion that only pleasure is valuable, and displeasure or pain is valueless. [12]

In 1861, English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) published one of his most famous essays, Utilitarianism, which was written to support the value of Bentham’s moral theories. The general argument of Mill’s work proposed that morality brings about the best state of a situation, and that the best state of affairs is the one with the largest amount of happiness for the majority of people. Mill also defined happiness as the supremacy of pleasure over pain; however, unlike Bentham, Mill recognised that pleasure can vary in quality. Whereas Bentham saw simple-minded and sensual pleasures, such as drinking alcohol or eating luxurious foods as just as good as complex and sophisticated pleasures, such as listening to classical music or reading a piece of literature,  [13] Mill argued that:

‘the pleasures that are rooted in one’s higher faculties should be weighted more heavily than baser pleasures.’

[14]  Mill’s version of pleasure also links back to the tradition  of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, as he stated that leading a virtuous life should be counted as part of a person’s happiness. [15]

Ultimately, ‘happiness’, at least from a political viewpoint, took its deepest roots in the New World. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) asserted that:

‘The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.’ [16] 

He believed that a good government was one that promoted its people’s happiness by securing their rights.

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence, 1776, image from http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/interactives/declaration-of-independence/pursuit/enlarge5.html

‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’, the three ‘unalienable rights’ is the phrase  most often quoted from  the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. Today, Americans translate ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as a right to follow ones dreams and chase after whatever makes you subjectively happy. [17]   However, Professor James R. Rogers from Texas A&M University argues that happiness in the public discourse of the late eighteenth-century did not simply refer to an emotional state. Instead, it meant a person’s wealth or well-being. [18] It included the right to meet ‘physical needs’, but it also encompassed an important religious and moral aspect. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 confirmed that:

‘the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depended upon piety, religion and morality, and… these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.’ [19]

Statements like these can be found in many documents of the time. Essentially, ‘happiness’ in the Declaration should be understood as a virtuous happiness, again similar to Aristotle’s ‘Eudaimonia’. Although the ‘pursuit of happiness’ includes a right to material things, it goes beyond that to include a person’s moral condition. [20]

After searching for the philosophy of happiness in twentieth-century Britain, I came across Bertrand Russell’s (1872-1970) The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930. To my surprise, I found his beliefs on happiness rather modern, and similar to the sort of ideas about happiness you can read about in self-help books today. Nevertheless, I found his work inspiring. Russell wrote this book to ‘suggest a cure’ for the day-to-day unhappiness that most people suffer from in civilised countries.  [21]

The key concept of happiness that I took away from Russell’s book was to stop worrying:

‘When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, “Well, after all, that would not matter so very much,’ you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent.’ [22]

This also means to stop worrying about what other people think of you, since most people will not think about you anywhere near as much as you think [23], essentially suggesting that people overestimate other negative people’s feelings about them.

With around two thousand self-help books being published every year, it can be argued that happiness is more central to modern-day society than any other time in history. [24]

However, as well as aiming to achieve happiness, there is now a huge emphasis on how to reduce symptoms which prevent happiness, such as anxiety and depression.  According to the Huffington Post, around 350,000,000 people around the world are affected by some form of depression. These extortionate statistics has led to the creation of organisations such as Action For Happiness, whose aim is to reduce misery in people’s lives, and encourage people to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world.

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1838-1910) once said:

“If you want to be happy, be.” [25]

The idea that we can simply choose to be happy, regardless of certain aspects of our life that we want to change, is also a prevalent idea today. The best-selling song of 2014, Pharrell Williams’ Happy promotes this idea:

‘Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.’ [26]

When asked what these lyrics meant, Williams stated that happiness has no limits and can be achieved by everyone.


Pharrell Williams’ reply. Image from https://twitter.com/Pharrell/status/431011318737698816?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Finally, the idea that everyone can achieve happiness has been a topic talked about by Sam Berns. Berns suffered from Progeria and helped raise awareness of this disease. He died one year after appearing in a TEDx Talks video called ‘My philosophy for a happy life’ at the age of seventeen in 2014. In this inspiring video, Berns shares his four key concepts that help him lead a happy life.

1) Overcome obstacles that prevent happiness.

2) Instead of focussing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.

3) Surround yourself with people who bring positive energy into your life.

4) Don’t waste energy on feeling bad for yourself.

Overall, it appear that there is no such thing as one concept of ‘happiness.’ From classical antiquity all the way through to present day, the idea of what happiness means culturally and philosophically has developed, and will most likely continue to change in the future.

Continue reading