I spent two hours today reading at Hot Numbers, Trumpington Street, after the 9am Wittgenstein lecture, where I had the best coffee I've had since I got to Cambridge. It was a proper hippie cafe. The coffee - a shot of espresso - comes with either milk or water, and there are four levels (?) of milk or water one could choose from, depending on the intensity one prefers. It's the same concept as Nylon in Singapore except Hot Numbers uses even numbers.
I had two 6oz with milk. I had a brownie. Then I had a salad. The only downside was that the place smelled like food and now my hair smells like food. What's with the poor ventilation in these places throughout the UK in general? Of course, my sample size of 'the UK' is limited to London and Cambridge, but I'm sure the rest of the country isn't much better.
I had three cups of coffee and barely anything for lunch and still I felt my fatigue grow and grow in the afternoon. I was trying to read as much of the Communitarianism chapter in Will Kymlicka's Introduction to Political Philosophy as I could, and I think I manage 30ish pages before I gave up, but still - there are 50 pages left. Oh my god.
Nonetheless, it was an interesting read. I read about John Rawls's attempt to accommodate communitarian-leaning groups in his liberal theory, the 'overlapping consensus', and Kymlicka's view that it doesn't work. He cited two cases in North America of religious groups - The Hutterites in Canada and of course, the beloved Amish in the US - making communitarian claims in a liberal society, asserting their freedom of religion right to organise its affairs according to its own religious beleifs. In the Canadian case, the Hutterites are not allowed to own private property. Two members fell out with the group and left, and then sued them for the value of the work that they put into maintaining the property. The court ruled in favour of the Hutterites - which I think is clearly right. I think the freedom of religion, under a proper liberal theory, has to include the right of the religious group to live according to its own religious dictates, even if some of it contradict liberal conceptions of individual rights; and the limit to that, crudely speaking, is if the religious group mandates that some kind of harm (I'm thinking physical harm) will befall on whoever chooses to leave or doesn't follow its teachings.
I am still absolutely convinced of the superiority of liberalism as a political and moral theory. It is the only political philosophy that I'm aware of that, in essence, gives people the freedom of choice to pursue their own conception of the good life, whatever it may be. This freedom doesn't even have to depend on, or follow from, a particular conception of the individual. We don't have to think of the individual as prior to its ends, as Rawls originally put it, or as embedded or situated within his/her social context, as the communitarians (e.g. Sandel) like to argue. Does it really matter? I'm not really sure about this. Of course, the conception of the individual will influence the contours of this freedom, but it seems to me to be a matter of degree; but the point is that liberalism can accommodate even the embedded self. Liberalism does not, and should not, force the individual to conform to liberal principles if he wishes to be an Amish. The counter argument here would be that someone who has been brought up in a purely Amish environment with no mainstream teaching wouldn't know what alternatives there are out there, and so his autonomy is limited which means he's arguably not even exercising a real choice. But then, does this matter? This presupposes a certain type of choice that is to be valued above others, and I think it's a tempting to go down this route as a liberal, but I don't know, who is anyone to judge whether someone is truly free? Maybe true freedom is to be free from the trappings of modernity.
Actually, I'm not sure if I believe that. I'm quite aware of a contradiction between the first part of that paragraph - that freedom of choice is the essence of liberalism - and the second part, that it doesn't matter if an Amish doesn't have real choice. It boils down to what one thinks of as a real choice, or what kind of choice is to be truly valued; but then, this leads me too far down the slippery slope of cultural relativism, which I am not a huge fan of because it can be too easily used as an excuse to violate fundamental liberties. Basically: I am confused. This also sums up my PhD experience so far.
Right. I did say that I shouldn't write substantively about work when I blog, but sometimes, I can't help it. One last thought: I wonder if Singapore can be accurately described as a communitarian state gone wrong. Communitarians like to point out everything that's wrong with a liberal state, which may be valid, but have they tried living in a communitarian state? Do they know what they're asking for?
Part of the current process is actually to approach the communitarianism literature with an open mind and properly assess its claims but I'm finding it so hard to shake my liberal tendencies, even as I roll my eyes at all the liberal wafflings about how everyone is very concerned about living the good life and how people worry about whether they're getting it right (please, I doubt the average person spends that much time thinking about what the good life is, let alone what it means). Sometimes I wonder if liberal philosophers like Joseph Raz aren't putting the human being on a pedestal based on their own self-understanding. Does this make sense? Oh well.
Anyway. I decided that I couldn't be bothered going to the Law Faculty on Tuesday, so I went to a cafe in town for cake and coffee. The cake was good, the coffee average, and I was distressed by a small group of about six protesters opposite the cafe who were protesting against some fashion store's use of fur. All I could think of was the poor animals and I felt so sad. I wasn't even close enough to see what materials they were giving out; the mere thought of the poor animals was enough to make me sad.
I had a quickie dinner with Dominic at a Japanese place next to the college. He'd initially wanted to go to Ramsay hall (i.e. the dining hall with awful, awful, awful hall food) because he had a meeting at 8pm in the college, and despite going to Ramsay on Monday and swearing never to go again, I was willing to suffer the awful, awful, awful food for his company. Thankfully he looked at the menu online and was resolutely against consuming pizza from Ramsay hall; ergo, we went to that Japanese place.
In all honesty, the curry was terrible. It didn't even taste like anything. I also just assumed that ebi curry meant ebi tempura curry, but I was sorely mistaken. At least there was rice, I guess. I expressed my incredulity at academics whining about having no work-life balance. Sure, I work on weekends, but I do it for myself and not some annoying client or an employer. I think there is a significant difference (I was trying to remember what word Dr K used to describe a 'significant' difference without using such a pedestrian word but I can't remmeber it).
On Wednesday evening, I finally met up with Edward (from law school) and his wife Daphne, and they drove us to a Thai restaurant in a pub that was really good. I was so pleased. It was a long day but it was a good end to a long day: good food, good company, good life!
Dominic is going to Paris for a week on Sunday, using some conference as an excuse for a holiday. In the early evening, he said, 'It'd be nice to see you before I'm off to Paris.'
It could be his Teutonicity, as he puts it, but he's not the most expressive person. I don't believe he's ever complimented me on my appearance, or said anything complimentary about me apart from how he found my company 'delightful'. Maybe that was high praise coming from him. I'm not complaining; I'm just amused. On second thought, I would probably get a heart attack from the sheer shock of it if he ever said anything like, 'You look nice today.' I tried fishing for compliments a few times but my efforts were in vain.
He's not replied to my message asking what time he's going to be at the pre-drinks tomorrow. He'd better be busy working and not ignoring me; that's a worse sin than being a few minutes late to meet!
Anyway, I'm doing laundry/gym tomorrow morning so I have to sleep soon. Dominic's white noise machine is really a life-saver. I realised also that I'm not used to sleeping in complete silence. At home, there's white noise from the air-conditioning. In London, there was the constant traffic noise. I guess that's why I find it really comforting to have the white noise machine making sounds in the night as I sleep.