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pathways (guide)

1 creating a space

From The Glass House Philosopher 23rd July 2004:

A kaleidoscope of images of myself down the years — in cafes, bars, museums, underground railway stations, parks, gardens, canal side, river side, tramping the streets of Oxford and London, art galleries, lecture theatres, library seats, every desk I have ever known...

If a thought is worth writing down, it's worth writing on the back of a used envelope, on scrap paper, in the margins of a newspaper, on your wrist. I had been a philosophy student for four years, got my degree, before I ever thought of buying myself a notepad — a typist's dictation book, 180 pages spiral bound. I soon learned that 80 pages is better: you have the pleasure of starting a new notebook more often. As if that made any difference...

Lesson one Before you can start to philosophize, you need to create a space in your life, which cannot be encroached upon. A hidey-hole. If the only place you can study is a cellar then get used to the dark. Get rid of all distractions. Wear earplugs if necessary.

Telephones are an invention of the devil. If you must have a telephone, keep it permanently connected to an answering machine with the sound turned off.

But I don't just mean physical space. Mental space, mental distance is far harder to create and sustain. Don't get impatient when your efforts fail, as they will. See this as the main task, rather than an annoying hurdle to get over. It may take longer than you think.

What is mental space?

Nature abhors a vacuum. That is no less true in the mental realm than in the physical realm. Yet if you are to create the conditions for philosophy to grow and thrive you must learn to resist the impulse to fill all your time with activity. Spend at least twenty minutes a day doing nothing. Don't allow your mind to skitter off in this direction or that. Learn to love the sound of silence.

You have to convince friends and family that you are serious about studying philosophy, or all your efforts will come to nothing. If you cannot earn your friends' respect for what you are doing, then they are not your friends, and never were.

With family, on the other hand, you will have to learn exquisite tolerance.

My choice of philosophy all those years ago was mixed up with the attempt to maintain a space around me in the face of suffocating family pressure. Finally, I broke free. For a while I floated high in the clouds. Then I got lonely and came down to earth for a brief visit. And there I've stayed ever since.

I chose philosophy, not because it promised a way of breaking free. Getting a job and becoming financially independent would have been a far more effective solution. I deliberately chose an occupation that my circumstances made difficult, if not impossible. I could never find a quiet place to work. I could never find the peace of mind to think. And the strange thing is, philosophy helped me cope, it helped me through. I must not forget that now. I want to be a better husband and father because I am a philosopher, not a worse one.

(Notebook I, 23rd August 1999)

I'm glad I remembered that. For another lesson, though, not now.

— Anything else?

What's happening now, at this very moment, that's what I want to talk about. The brief pause when you think you've come to the end of a line of thought, but you haven't. That's why space is so vital. Having space guards against closing things off prematurely. Your greatest achievements (as Russell once observed) will occur in a matter of seconds. During those precious few seconds, had you allowed yourself to be distracted — by the phone ring, the smell of dinner in the oven, or the minute hand of the clock inching its way towards five — they might never have occurred at all.