Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner


 

PHILOSOPHIZER

 

Geoffrey Klempner

 

 

 

 

© Geoffrey Klempner 2016

All rights reserved.

Email klempner@fastmail.net

Web https://philosophypathways.com


 

 

 

 

|

Gallic

Cheers

A soft

Breeze

Strokes my

Scaly yellow skin

Edging slowly fin by fin

As I ascend the iron stairs

/                                                     \

 

 

 

 

CONTENTS

 

Sphinx of black quartz

I am awake

Gulliver

The deep mystery of things

Know thyself

I exist therefore what?

Philosophers and sophists

Why art moves us

A touch of poshlust

The dark side of life

Yellow crystals

Sky diver

Ring quest

Performance coach

A wolf's sense of smell

Good study habits

The colour black

An idiotic conundrum

Return of the evil demon

The inverted world

How much intelligence does a philosopher need?

Vanity of vanities

Everyday life

The world as a puzzle

God on whose side?

Grey Owl

Photography as metaphysics

Contagion

Elephant in the room

What is existence?

What is truth?

Double vision

A fatal blink

Knight of faith

Philosophy as a way of life

Herr Doktor Faust

 

About the Author

 

 

 

 

For Ruth, Judith and Francesca

 

 

 

 

‘Men become what they dream.

— You have dreamed well.’

(Grey Owl, 1999)


 

 

 

 

Note

 

Philosophizer was conceived and written

early in 2016, but some of the materials go

back nearly two decades. Passages in italics

are taken from my blogs and other writings.

The original sources for quoted excerpts from

‘Ask a Philosopher’ can be found on the web at

philosophypathways.com/questions/

 

 

 


Sphinx of black quartz

 

I am

I am not someone

I am myself

I am perfect in every way

Everything that has happened in my life

Is for a reason

That I should become

The person that I am

For my sake

Was the world created

 

...The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Fill my box with five dozen liquor jugs. Sphinx of black quartz judge my vow. Five quacking zephyrs jolt my wax bed. Few quips galvanized the mock jury box. My faxed joke won a pager in the cable TV quiz show.

(At least I remember where the keys are.)

My typewriter is annoyingly imperfect. The primitive computer chip can only remember half a sentence before it overloads. Ribbons are difficult to obtain and run out after a few pages. The carriage return doesn't always go to a new line so all the words end up mashed together on top of one another in a sticky black mess.

At least it's quiet. All plastic, runs on batteries. Nice smell, too. Rubber and ozone.

Ah, the 80s.

Ah, paper. What will we do when all the trees have gone? A stupid question. We'll all be dead, of course.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the earth is in the process of being buried under mountains of scribble. Land-fill sites stuffed with rotting newsprint chlorinating the soil. Bookshops with volumes piled high like cans of beans. Philosophers have made their fair contribution to the bean pile.

Better not write at all. Writing destroys memory. Socrates knew that. It weakens the mind, making it reliant on an external prop Plato says in the Phaedrus. In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 people learn whole volumes off by heart to save the last remnants of the world's literature from the flames.

An excellent idea. Let's ban writing and give all authors and would-be authors a brain wipe!

Now, where was I?...

 

Tortured teenage mothers regurgitate scalded foetuses. Abyssinian rogue traders teach philosophy to injured scorpions. Crushed peppermint toy boys self-immolate in empty football arenas. Lobotomized authors dance on roller skates with crazed veterinary surgeons.

 

...That's better.

From nonsense, comes sense, and from sense, nonsense. Words lined up like Lego bricks. The order is immaterial. Each word names a thought — red, white, blue, yellow. Yes, no, life, death. Out of these comes the accumulated culture of the human race.

All art is imitation, but the art of words is doubly so. Every word we use has been used countless times. Like money. The medium of exchange. For every item there is a cash equivalent and for every idea the word equivalent. 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent,' as Wittgenstein said.

Words disgust me — more than words can say. I'd rather play my penny whistle. Or sing. Wordlessly.

Words and money. Copy writers and pulp novelists paid so and so much per hundred words. You have to wash your hands after handling money, my mother taught me...

 

'Jaffa cake?'

It must have taken a packet and half to fill the immaculate plate of orange chocolate sponge biscuits with a name that in 1970 is on the cusp of being politically incorrect. I'm afraid to disturb the symmetry.

'No, I'm OK, thanks.'

I am staring down at the plate, at the Persian carpet, anywhere but at my host's anxious eyes.

I wish I could put her mind at ease. But I say nothing. Why am I here?

Over in the corner of the living room, the silver haired woman's husband fidgets with one of those collapsible music stands that always seems to collapse when you want use them. I notice with a pang of anticipation the music sheets held tightly under his arm.

'Can I help you with that, darling?'

'I can never get these damn things to work!'

'We should have had Peter here. From downstairs. He's so helpful.'

She turns to me with a nervous smile.

'Can you...?'

I jump up, glad of the distraction. It's too dark to see here. I carry the stand over to a large double window overlooking a magnificent view of Hampstead Heath. This apartment must have cost a packet.

From the other end of the room, I can hear husband and wife whispering.

'Vicky recommended him. He must be good.'

'Who keeps a guitar in a cardboard box? Can't he afford a guitar case?'

'We could buy him one.'

'The fee was agreed. If he wants to spend the money on marijuana that's his business.'

Still struggling with the recalcitrant metal contraption, I'm sweating now. Pot? I'm almost ready to blurt out my plea of innocence, then it occurs to me that it might harm my hippie credentials.

'Done it!'

Grinning lopsidedly, I realize I still have one of the butterfly nuts between my lips.

'Sorry, I don't know where this goes.'

I hand the old lady the small metal object. Her hand retracts momentarily, then gingerly places the metal piece on a spare plate. Of course, it's been in my mouth. Idiot.

'Bernie and I were discussing your hair style. We saw someone just like you on Top of the Pops. He was a coloured gentleman.'

'That would have been Jimi Hendrix.'

'Aa-hh!'

The name obviously rings a bell. But Nat King Cole he isn't. I've stumbled into a time warp.

The feeling is confirmed when I start reading the lyrics on the music sheet Bernie hands me:

 

If I only had green fingers

I would plant me a ro-ose

 

1950s Tin Pan Alley. Aunt Vicky told me the couple had a hit once. When was that? 20 years ago? 30? Yet this is the epitome of song writing. All that's wrong is the date. Last night on Top of the Pops Tim Marriot of the Small Faces was telling the girl he was sweet on that he was a 'little tin soldier' who 'wants to jump into your fire'.

Like fashion, lyric ideas are of a time. 'The Tin Soldier' is a children's story from way back. Somehow, it works. There's a nod in the direction of the Doors 'Light My Fire' but the theme is not sex, it's innocent infatuation. (In the recording, the last line isn't clear: does he want to 'sit' with her or 'stick' with her? Mick Jagger once commented that it was good when you can't quite make out the lyrics.)

Two hours later, after trying various arrangements, we finally have something on tape. We're saying our goodbyes.

'Sandy and I think you have a wonderful voice. Transatlantic. You could be a pop singer!'

 

...From nonsense, comes sense, and from sense, nonsense. Incidents from my life laid out like postage stamps.

In some possible world, I was a pop singer. I am a pop singer. It's real. If possible worlds are really real as some philosophers say. This is beyond absurdity. Thoughts like these could drive you mad...

A lyric has to be about something. First the concept, then the development. You develop the theme in the same way as you would argue a point in logic. It all follows. There are still choices to make, the chance to exercise ingenuity, creativity, or take the safe, clichéd route. You learn to question your first impulse:

A pilchard made of semolina (or the colour of semolina?) is climbing up the Eiffel Tower.

An elementary penguin (what other grades of penguin are there?) is singing 'Hare Krishna' (with cymbal accompaniment? without?).

Meanwhile, the writer Edgar Allen Poe is getting a (deserved? undeserved?) kicking. Boy, you should have seen that!

— In their music and lyric writing, the Beatles kicked against every convention. And yet, the nonsense lyrics of 'I am a Walrus' have a logic, they say something.

Try putting words together at random and seeing how far short this falls of anything remotely resembling John Lennon's precisely engineered lyric. This is painting with words, like Rothko, or Pollock.

The precision, the finely tuned judgement, is there to see — if you have the eyes to see it.

But I digress.

My life doesn't make sense. It doesn't add up. But, in any case, even if it did, it wouldn't be interesting enough to write about. That's why this isn't about me, or my life. It's an investigation. A hunt.

For I know not what. Maybe the thing I see, out of the corner of my eye, or maybe not. It could be something totally different, something I've never dreamed of. Could be. Why not?

The evidence is sparse. A mostly uneventful life, the few books from way back that I've accumulated in my hump — before I lost the taste for reading. Or killed it. Could that be it? Did I kill something in me? Will this 'something' come back to life and finally take its revenge?

Logic.

Lyric writing. Novel writing. Thoughts made into words. Out of all the possible choices, there's only one way that's the right way. The word, or the brush stroke — or the paint splash — that was necessary.

If you don't see the logic, then you don't understand, even if you think you do.

I've been bucking necessity all of my life. I cannot try anything, can't move a muscle, unless I feel it to be necessary. My life is a logical deduction from the moment of my birth.

— If that is the case then my life should make sense, shouldn't it? It should add up. Is there something wrong with me? Then that, too, was necessary.

Necessity isn't restriction. Necessity is liberation. Spinoza said that.

 

 

 


I am awake

 

Last night as I lay in bed, on my back, head turned to one side, staring at the wall, not tired — I knew that sleep would soon take me.

When I get into bed, I usually think about a philosophical problem. That soon sends me to sleep. I keep a light on so that I can stay awake a bit longer. It hardly makes a difference.

Yet when I think about philosophy during the day, it doesn't have the same effect. Why?

That's not a philosophical question but a scientific one, a question about human psychology and physiology — an invitation to put forward a theory.

Does thinking in bed about things other than philosophy have the same soporific effect? which things? Thinking about my tax return, or house repairs that need to be done, or admin work from my philosophy school piling up on my desk are things that are guaranteed to keep me awake. That's a theory I have tested a few too many times. I already know the answer.

Maybe one day — it could be tomorrow — I will lie down, turn my head to one side, stare at the wall, and that will be the last thing I ever experience. There will be no more 'I'. When they find me, I will be flat on my back.

Here I am — again.

Another day awaits.

If these words should by some fluke survive after my death, that will be my life wrapped up. Every story has an ending — unless it's a soap opera. I got into bed so many times. I got out of bed the same number of times (or the same number of times minus one — got to be precise). In between getting out of bed and going back into to bed, I did stuff, I went about the world, I lived my life. And as I lived and did stuff, slept, woke, did more stuff, I aged. Then, finally, death took me. The big sleep.

Getting out of bed in the morning, that's the first challenge.

For some people, the problem is mustering the physical effort, willing the muscles to move. Then there are those who find their beds too comfortable, they recoil at the thought of cold air caressing the skin. Others have a genuine reason to not want to get up, they already know that the day is going to be a gruelling one. Maybe that is the way things are for them every day — a sweat shop worker or a convict doing hard labour, say. At least there is one thing you can look forward to: going back to sleep!

I don't have any of those problems. The thing that challenges me is the thought that in ten seconds time, or however long it takes, I will be standing up, not lying down. 'Now' will be a different time from what it is now, at this very moment. Time will have moved on. By so and so many seconds.

For some reason that fact strikes a chill in my bones. A metaphysical fear. I have to switch off, forget, not think. Just act. And then, without thought, my body gets up, while I am carried along with it.

Why doesn't that fear always occur? Why don't I have the same worry about getting dressed, making breakfast, checking my email, leaving the house, going to the shops? All these actions take place in the normal flow of time. I am already moving through the day.

I thought of a name for my condition: chronophobia. The fear of time. Not fear of the passage of time from hour to hour or day to day, or even the surprises the future brings, but rather fear of time itself, its very nature as time. Knowing exactly what will happen in the next few seconds or minutes makes it all the more fearful. I can't explain why. I have had this fear for as long as I can remember.

But then that's the way with phobias. Some people have a phobia of baked beans, so I read somewhere. I'd rather have a phobia of baked beans than a phobia of time. Baked beans is something I could give up.

Meanwhile, lying here, I can indulge myself in the illusion that, somehow, time stands still. The patch of sunlight on the wall is moving, but too slowly to notice. My thoughts are moving too, but thought has the peculiar property of not appearing to take place in time — at least not while you are in the very act of thinking.

(Is that true of all thinking? Say, you are in a quiz show attempting to solve a maths puzzle as the clock clicks down. That seems to be the exception.)

As I lie here thinking about all these things, time comes to a stop. The world comes to a stop. That must be a reason why I like being a thinker. I can stop the clock.

The patch of sunlight has moved. I just noticed. The illusion is becoming harder to sustain. And now my eyes are drawn irresistibly to my bedside clock.

...I am up.

 

 

 


Gulliver

 

I am Gulliver

In the Land of Lilliput

And you are the Little People

Your squeaky

Boos and cheers

Are like the buzzing

And chirping

Of insects

 

...What kind of book is this? Who is it for?

How about me — in an alternative universe — at the end of 1974. My father had given me Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a Christmas present. I'd asked for the book after seeing an article in one of the Sunday newspapers, illustrated with a drawing of a mean looking Harley Davidson. (Pirsig rode a modest Honda.) I gulped the green and orange volume down in greedy delight.

Then I looked around for something else to read and there was... nothing. Nothing that interested me. Just the familiar worthy texts piled up on my desk. Back to the grind. I could have done with this back then.

There is a reader (apart from my alternative possible self) whom I would like to please — in that way. A good many readers in fact.

To be upfront about this, I would like to see my book in paperback in London Underground tube trains. Paperback Writer. That's the bench mark. I don't have any higher ambitions than that. Then I know I will have succeeded in my aim — of writing a book that pleases. A lot.

Maybe I've got it all wrong. The last thing one should do is aim to please — what Plato called 'pandering'. He crinkled his nose up at that. No, a philosophy book should aim to make you better than you were before — morally or intellectually. It should improve you.

Then again, there are those who would argue (arguments, arguments, arguments — don't you get tired of arguments?!) that if the improvement is too easy, purchased at too low a cost, then it wasn't really worth it in the first place. The first impression the book should give is to make you thoroughly confused. 'I don't know my way about' — that should be your first thought.

Then you have work to do. Work is good for you. It improves you.

The deeper the confusion — your sense of being lost and not knowing your way about — the more you will need to rely on professional helpers to sort your confusion out and tell you what to think. (They love that, of course.)

That is not what I want. If this book confuses you then it's my fault and I've failed. I want to please, and only that. I have no particular agenda regarding my reader's moral or intellectual well-being. Just get that idea right out of your head. (It might help if you relax and try to forget what you think a philosophy book should be. Don't ask me, I don't know!)

(It would please me a lot if this book helped get the reader hooked on philosophy. After that, the reader can go on to tackle the tougher books. When you have an all-consuming interest you want others to share it too. Why not?)

Meanwhile...

You might have guessed by now that there is another kind of reader lurking in the background, who will not be in the least bit pleased by my book. In the author's imagination — not to put to fine a point on it — a reader of this second kind spontaneously combusts to a pile of sticky ash before reaching the end of Chapter One. There are quite a few of those (don't ask me for names).

Adapting Archbishop Tertullian's remark about Heaven and Hell (gleefully quoted in a footnote by Nietzsche — in Beyond Good and Evil, I seem to recall) the pleasure enjoyed by a reader of the first kind is immeasurably increased by that reader's knowledge of the torment suffered by a reader of the second kind.

If words could kill!

(Which kind of reader are you? Well, if you got this far...)

Anyway, I guess that's one difference between me and Pirsig. He's a nicer guy. Slightly.

If one is being scrupulously honest, at this point the author should own up that in addition to pleasing some readers he would also like to please himself. How few authors do that? (Are the rest liars? Is it out of some false sense of decorum?)

Call it catharsis — a good Greek word.

This exercise is cathartic for me. I need this.

I have no intention of writing an autobiographical diatribe. (How boring would that be.) My book is more of a joyful celebration. Not that I have any significant achievements to celebrate, but simply the fact I have survived.

Yes, that's what this is. I've got it now.

A survival tale.

But it is also something more.

In Ancient Greek times, you could learn the skills of rhetoric from someone called a sophist. (Pirsig talks about the injustice done by the history of philosophy to the Greek sophists.) Sophists wrote demonstration pieces to show off their skills to potential clients. (You could say that the sophists were the inventors of advertising.) A famous example of a demonstration piece is Encomium of Helen by the sophist Gorgias. Contradicting the popular view of Helen as the treacherously unfaithful wife who sparked the Trojan War, Gorgias uses all his rhetorical skills to make the case that Helen was in fact deserving of the highest praise.

That was not what Gorgias thought. Who knows what he really thought? It didn't matter. That wasn't the point.

Call this my demonstration piece. Belated, to be sure. Up until a relatively short time ago, like any sophist you could have found my contact details on the web and hired me. You can't do that now because I'm retired. (So you can put your wallet away!)

However, there is one important difference between me and Gorgias (two actually, but we will get to the other difference later). I am no longer practising as a sophist. Instead, I am posing as a philosopher.

...No, better, I am perfecting myself as a philosopher.

In what follows, I will only say what I think and believe, because that's what a philosopher does.

I have nothing to advertise, nothing to sell.

I've dabbled in irony — and it doesn't work for me.

The truth is all that matters now...

 

 

 


The deep mystery of things

 

Sometimes when I'm driving my old Ford Escort I wonder about its former owners. In all, according to the log book, there were no less than eleven before me. In its time, I suppose, the car has been the mute witness to all kinds of incidents and dramas, and, on at least one occasion — judging by the welding and ill-fitting body panels — suffered serious crash damage. If I had the time to investigate, I'm sure I could find out quite a lot. Perhaps it's better for my peace of mind if I didn't. Of all the questions I could think to ask, however, many cannot ever be answered, by me or anyone else. — When I think about that fact, it sends me into a swoon. The car feels haunted, resonating with the heavy weight of its history. So many facts: where are they all now?

 

...I owned the Mk3 two door version, light metallic blue. The car was sold for scrap after the engine died. I shed a tear. That was a good many years ago. The car I drive now, a white Reliant Scimitar GTE, is 40 years old, older than the Escort (if it hadn't been scrapped) by more than a decade — and still going strong. Fibreglass body. Underneath the flaking paint you can see patches of light pastel blue — the original colour when it rolled out of the factory in 1975.

I like old things.

All my computers are old. They have a history which I know nothing about. They didn't arrive in shiny boxes with photos of yuppies surfing the Internet with inane grins on their faces. They have a meaning which goes beyond their practical utility, even beyond the fact that I love things for their utility, and the power that symbolizes.

The keys that I am typing on now have known other hands before mine. As have all the other keyboards attached to computers scattered around my attic study. Ghosts. The things around me, my tools and decorations and playthings, carry the weight of the past. They resonate with meaning.

There are some people who will never use anything second-hand. I can understand that point of view. You don't know where a thing has been. The previous owner might not have been a very nice person. Yet they love their possessions too...

 

Philosophers, so quick to analyse, look at an object as a mere bearer of physical properties, or as a tool with a function, or, possibly, one of those rare objects that attains the status of a 'work of art', a bearer of sheer disinterested aesthetic value. None of these ways of analysing an object explain why we love THINGS. All parents know how children lust for toys. We grow up. We put away childish things. We do not lose that lust, we merely look for different things to attach ourselves to, to project our emotions onto. This is normal, not pathological behaviour.

Object-love is one of the most profound facts about our human relation to the world. That is something Freud saw.

 

...The Freudian term is cathexis, the investment of emotional energy in some object, which can be physical or mental. In some way or other, a mental 'object' is involved, giving physical objects, the things we own and use an 'aura' whose source lies in our subconscious.

I remember a cheap plastic toy which I once found in a bag of sweets — a 'Jamboree Bag', as they were called. I might have been nine or ten. The bags were made of coloured paper decorated with a drawing of boy scouts around a camp fire. You never knew what you would find when you tore the bag open.

My toy was a tiny slide viewer and a frame taken (as I now realize) from a discarded 35mm movie print. The process of film editing produces reels and reels of this stuff — some Hong Kong entrepreneur must have had the bright idea of using these to make cheap novelties.

There was nothing special about the scene in the saturated Technicolor transparency. As I recall, the scene showed an American car parked on a main street somewhere, tall buildings, blue sky — a random image. It was the fact that this was once real that gave the little rectangle of celluloid its emotional potency. (Maybe also because the scene was from America, hence far away? Could be.) Even now, I can feel the shudder of realization — the mystery of the real.

This relates to my childhood 'swooning' episode, recorded on the front page of my Glass House Philosopher blog...

 

There is a persistent memory from my childhood — I could not have been more than six or seven — holding my head in my hands on the stairs, in a swoon. I date this as the time I first became aware of the world around me as a world. Our house, the street, the suburbs of London, the Earth and sky spread endlessly out to the stars.

As my head spun, I had a fleeting memory image of a girl with blue eyes and black hair, standing in front of a school desk holding a large square piece of red paper. We used a lot of coloured paper at school. Cutting it, sticking it, folding it into models. I have never been able to discover the true connection between the image and the feeling of a world revolving dizzyingly around me.

 

...I think I know what it is now. It wasn't about the world 'being made of coloured stuff' as I wrote then. It was about transcendence. The girl with the blue eyes was a vivid memory. The memory was real. But the girl was not. Not at that moment. What was real, at that moment, was carpeted stairs, the wooden bannister I was leaning against, at the end of the downstairs hallway a glass panelled front door covered by a net curtain, and the faint images of cars and houses and trees in the quiet cul-de-sac outside.

Physical objects are transcendent. We can touch them and yet in a strange way they are out of reach. Like my old Canon electronic typewriter, like my white Scimitar, like my own physical body, like memories, like time, like the world. That is their meaning, a meaning we take for granted, until we choose to focus on it.

— And when you do, it can blow your mind.

 


Know thyself

 

Am I in the universe?

Or is the universe in me?

The universe made me

The universe left its

Imprint on me

The truth of the universe

Is in me

 

...I don't know myself, not fully. I do things that totally surprise me. Or I feel the opposite of what I expected to feel about some person or incident and can't give a coherent reason why.

Maybe it should worry me, but it doesn't. I accept myself and my changing moods as a given fact — like the weather. Too much of what made me me is in the distant past, a past I don't particularly care to revisit.

However, that's not what this investigation is about. It's the questions that grip me that I am after. Or questions my former selves thought about which somehow I have allowed myself to forget.

Memory is the key. Presence of mind.

'Know thyself' was originally one of the Delphic maxims, said to have been inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. — What does it mean?

To the Ancient Greeks, the maxim, 'Know thyself' wasn't saying, 'Know who you really are inside,' or 'Question your inner motives.' The Ancient Greeks barely had any notion of an 'inner' life in the way we understand this now — as something suppressed or subconscious. In Ancient Greece, you knew a man from what he did, the role he played, the actions he performed, the things he said.

A man who failed to follow the maxim of 'know thyself' might be someone who was boastful, who had an inflated opinion about himself compared to what others thought, or rather knew. In Greek Tragedy, overweening pride, or hubris, is a case of false over-estimation of one's own powers, a failure to appreciate the full significance of the situation that one finds oneself in.

The classic example would be a hero like Prometheus whose hubris led him to challenge the god Zeus, not realizing the full extent of Zeus's power and lust for revenge — a man who 'didn't know his own limitations'.

The kind of advice one would give to an Ancient Greek would be, 'Look at the wider picture, try to see yourself as others see you,' not 'Look into the depths of your soul.' You'd just get a blank stare if you said that. (The word 'soul' comes from the Greek psuche — breath or life.)

What Socrates meant by 'Know thyself,' however, was very different from the accepted understanding of the Delphic maxim.

Socrates was pointing out that your soul or psuche has an essence which is universal not particular. In this respect you are the same as any other human being. There is a transcendent non-physical reality behind the everyday world of physical things. Your soul shares an aspect of this ultimate reality. It bears its imprint. By looking into your psuche, by seeking 'self-knowledge', you will come to know this ultimate reality — which Socrates and Plato called 'the Forms'.

This is Plato's so-called 'theory of recollection'. When Socrates said, 'Know thyself,' he meant, 'Recall what you truly are.'

The non-physical world behind the world of appearances is a world of pure concepts or ideas, abstract rather than concrete, yet having a quasi-physical power over the physical world. The Forms are the source of all values, all meaning. Human beings are partly of the world of non-physical Forms and partly of the physical world. We have our feet in both realities at one and the same time.

We are torn, in fact. That's what makes the struggle to reach philosophical understanding so dramatic. In Plato's dialogue Phaedo, which recounts Socrates' last day in prison and his execution by being made to drink hemlock, Socrates tells his grieving friends that the body is the 'prison house' of the soul. They should be glad that he will soon be released.

We are looking now at where philosophy started. The 20th century philosopher A.N. Whitehead remarked that the European tradition of philosophy consists of 'footnotes to Plato'.

This isn't about some particular 'theory' — which might or might not be true. (I'll explain later why I don't consider myself to be a 'Platonist'.) It's about the idea that there is a truth to be found about the universe which does not involve looking out onto the world, performing experiments or putting forward hypotheses. Science does not have the last word.

There's another kind of knowledge that you can acquire by looking inwards. Not knowledge of your own personal psychology (as I've already said, that's not relevant) but something else — knowledge that we somehow already 'know' but have 'forgotten' and need to 'recollect'.

Philosophical knowledge. Or maybe 'metaphysical' knowledge. (I'll talk more about the difference, if any, later.) Whichever term you use, this is knowledge arrived at through the exercise of reason.

Philosophy is the art of reason.

I am in the universe and the universe is in me — at one and the same time. I am physically a part of the physical universe, but truths about the physical universe are not the only truths.

There is the vast realm of mathematics, that had only just begun to open up in Plato's time. (On the gates of Plato's Academy was the sign, 'Let no-one who has not studied mathematics enter here.') Once you understand what numbers are, how they depend upon the simple concept of 'things being in an order', you will see why 2+3=5 in any possible universe where things can be put in an order and counted.

The truths of philosophy, or metaphysics, are just like that — just like the truths of mathematics — in that they don't depend on how things are in the physical world. That was Socrates' and Plato's great idea. The truths of philosophy are independent of the physical world. That's how you are able to reach them by looking into your own mind.

— The universe 'in me'.

The truths I am after are universal truths. They apply to all places and all times — and all possible worlds. You could say the Greeks opened our eyes to an infinite world of philosophical truths.

But there is a fly in the ointment.

There are also universal truths of a different kind, which concern the pathology of the philosophical inquirer. As fallible human beings, we are all-too easily led into illogical thinking and blind alleys. We are subject to illusions that are not peculiar to this or that mind but somehow necessary and unavoidable. (The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant was the first to make that point.)

Where do these illusions come from? Maybe it has something to do with our delicate brains and the way we have evolved, or the narrowing vision of our culture, or perhaps the very fact that we are finite, limited in our capacity to reason or imprisoned in our own perspective or particular senses or way of looking on the world.

I only have myself to go on. As I look into myself, searching for philosophical truths, every thought, every idea is suspect. I cannot take anything as what it appears to be.

And neither should you.

 

 

 


I exist therefore what?

 

What next? Right now, I still have a wide world of choices. I can write any book, assemble the jig-saw pieces, any way I like. As for later, when the alternatives narrow down — let's not worry about that!...

 

I am the philosopher in a glass house. Call it an experiment. I don't suffer from writer's block. I can pour out words till the cows come home. Lately, though, the quality hasn't been terribly high. Perhaps the presence of an audience will help me raise the standard. I have become too proficient in skimming the surface, reacting to the e-mailed letters and essays my students send me, knocking off up to a thousand words an hour of 'philosopher speak'.

It is a lot easier to sound like a philosopher than it is to be one. Very profound.

The clue lies in the past. I have got to go back. Not now, though, I'm too tired. The words came to me on the bus, and all of a sudden my anxieties melted away. I will meet up with all my former selves. I will become whole again.

 

...'Easier to sound like a philosopher than be one.' — How many times have I fallen into that trap? I need to keep a close watch on myself. (All those 'former selves' — they will make their appearance soon enough.)

The hardest thing to be told is, 'start anywhere you like.' One needs direction. — Do you feel that you need to be directed? Why? What is so bad about chance?

You make a paint mark on the canvas. Then you make another mark, then another. At some point — quite soon in fact — you find yourself making visual judgements. That's when necessity kicks in.

Chance and necessity, two sides of the same coin.

But that first mark... you had to hold your breath... stifle the sense of mounting panic... and leap.

The terror of the blank page or blank canvas. It never gets any easier, so I'm told.

Best not to think.

New students tend to fall victim to a kind of mental paralysis, awed by the vastness of the subject. Just jump in, charge straight ahead, that's my advice. Read the book your hand falls upon, read the chapter the book opens at. Let serendipity be your guide.

So?...

I need a question, any question. This one caught my eye...

 

Andrew asked, 'Can you point me in the right direction to answer the following. I exist. There is no way that I can logically see that 'I' could not exist. To believe otherwise would be to accept that there are entities that do not exist, which I do not see as possible. My question is then, does this mean that I had to exist? That is not a matter of incredible chance but a certainty?'

 

...It's not an uncommon feeling — the thought that somehow I had to exist, that there is no possibility that I could have failed to be me. However, the train of thought does not end there. When I consider the prospect of my death, it seems impossible, for very similar reasons (if one can talk of reasons) that there will be a time when I am not.

What am I saying? I know exactly the way Andrew feels, because I feel it too. In order to be here, writing this, my father had to produce the sperm that fertilized my mother's egg, which grew into a foetus and eventually became me. If the sperm and egg had not come together, I would not have existed. But exactly the same applies to the existence of my parents, and their grand parents, their great grand parents, and so on. If any one of those links in the chain had been broken — going right back to the beginning of the human race — I would not be here today.

All in all, an incredible chance, a fantastical improbability.

It's almost impossible to believe. But let's just look at the alternative.

I had to exist. I could not have failed to have been born. How does that sound? slightly mad?

Am I willing to grant the same about Andrew? Not at all. I have not the slightest difficulty in supposing that 'Andrew' (whoever he is — he is a real person, not made up) might not have existed. Then I wouldn't have had Andrew's question to answer. (The supply of questions and questioners is never-ending, thanks to the Internet.)

If I had to exist, but no-one else had to exist, then I must be very special. Maybe I am God? How do I know I'm not?

It's generally considered acceptable to think of oneself as 'special', in the mundane sense that one's relation to one's own existence has a unique flavour which is absent from one's relation to other persons. However, that hardly suffices to alleviate the sense of dizzying vertigo at the paradoxical improbability of one's own existence.

Ultimately, we are all in the same boat. That is true. The same problem applies to anyone who stops to think about it as applies to me. I can only feel the paradox in my own case, just as you can only feel the paradox in your own case. But that's no help. I fully empathise with your saying what you say, because I'm motivated to say it too. The difference is that your saying what you say has an obvious explanation in 'my' universe. That's why I'm not the least bit puzzled by the contingency of your existence. Why, then, can't I apply the same explanation to myself?!

I can't. That's just a brute fact. That is what it is to be the possessor of a perspective on the world, a subjective standpoint. Yet, strangely, this observation does seem to point to a possible resolution. The sense of paradox doesn't go away. Rather, I get to see it for what it is: simply an inevitable consequence of the fact that I am stuck here, unable to step outside my own point of view even for a moment. There's something I can't see, not because there is any obstruction to my vision but because the very act of seeing places me here and not there.

I am not saying that we are unable to think about how things are from other points of view. Of course we are. It is built into the very nature of human language that we can imagine what it would like to be in someone else's shoes. (There is a distressing condition called autism where this mental ability is underdeveloped or stunted.)

Yet, in all this, there remains the stubborn fact that I am the one asking the question. I can pose your question to myself as a question about myself, but I can't ask your question for you.

'I am the one asking the question,' is a fundamental principle of metaphysics. Impossible though it may seem, I exist.

The one thing I cannot be wrong about is the fact that I exist. That's what Descartes said. Everything else is up for grabs. But what kind of a fact is that? How can it be a fact?

Ask yourself, don't ask me!

 

 

 


Philosophers and sophists

 

Why am I here? A young man posted a witty comment on a YouTube video I'd made with that title: 'I came here out of boredom.' (You can't be too careful with the titles you choose for YouTube videos.) It made me laugh. Boredom is an interesting concept, I replied, playing it straight. It makes you aware of your existence, painfully so. Boredom is so much more revealing than existential angst, don't you think?

That shut him up.

Boredom. I have spent years and decades being bored by everything this wide world has to offer, happily or unhappily enduring every variety of boredom. One thing that doesn't bore me is the question what it means to exist. But more on that later.

By the time he or she is old enough to read, a human being has suffered a colossal weight of cultural brainwashing, sufficient to render one incapable of anything more than superficial reflection on the nature of existence. And yet, over the centuries, examples of rare individuals have appeared who were able to break free. Their work provides the essential toolkit for every would-be questioner.

It is difficult to value that history too highly. And yet, at the same time I feel choked by the dust of centuries, crushed by the weight of all those worthy treatises. Maybe it is just the sense one has at a particular point in one's life, that the only way to approach the task is to forget everything one has ever learned and start again.

I guess that is one reason why I am writing this. As I said before, I am doing this for myself. I need to understand what has brought me to this point in my life.

Who were those rare individuals that I just mentioned? What was it that they did? — Let's not use the word for 'that thing' yet (even though you know what it is). For there is another problem.

Is it really possible to do this? That's my question. Is there really any room for a different take — radically different, not just a minor inflection or some new-fangled terminology — on the nature of 'that thing'? Hasn't every move and counter-move already been tried?

Two and a half thousand years of history are bearing down. Not to mention armies of professors with tenures to protect plus an even greater number teachers still chasing that accolade from the Academy. Also not to mention the publishing companies who rely on back catalogues going back decades. Everyone knows, or assumes that they know, what it is to be someone who 'does that thing'.

The word, of course, is 'philosopher'. What a philosopher does is 'philosophize'. The product of philosophizing is called — no surprises there — 'philosophy'. What do those terms mean? Virtually nothing. Zilch. 'I am someone who loves wisdom.' Well, yeah.

The word started out as a political label, like 'liberal democrat' or 'national socialist'. The first philosophers so-called (or, rather, so they called themselves — that was the whole point!) were perceived as secretive, subversive, potential threats to the political status quo. The primary aim of these unemployed teachers and book writers was to corrupt the young — that is to say, show those willing to listen, ways of questioning the accepted beliefs of the day. That made them a soft target. The word 'philosopher' was invented as a means of self-defence. 'Don't hurt us. You love wisdom, don't you?!'

One such 'philosopher', Socrates, was put to death on charges — questioning accepted beliefs, corrupting the young — that could have been leveled at any one of his contemporaries.

Socrates' fatal error was to pick a fight with the sophists, figures like Gorgias (we've met him), Protagoras, Thrasymachus — experts in argument and debate whom you could hire to improve your skills. You wouldn't think there was anything wrong with that, but in Plato's dialogues the sophists are depicted as holding views intolerable to any genuine lover of wisdom.

The sophists also made lots of money. Gorgias had a statue of himself cast in gold. Plato's depiction of Protagoras and his rich followers in the dialogue Protagoras reeks with suppressed envy.

Yet these were the best friends the philosophers had. You could hardly slip a fragment of papyrus between the philosophers and the performance coaches who followed their activities with keen admiring interest. With the foundation of the Academy, Plato effectively put an end to that historic collaboration.

Today, academic philosophy is mired in a new age of scholasticism. In the university tower blocks, professors of physics or psychology, history or English are baffled by what it is their philosopher colleagues do. They might as well be speaking a different language.

Once you've learned the labyrinthine rules of the game, it all makes perfect sense. By that time, you are probably in the final year of your doctoral program hoping to get your foot on the first rung of the ladder of academic recognition. And so the circus goes on.

What a waste of talent.

I believe it is possible to talk about the deepest problems of philosophy without mystification or gobbledygook. There is a way to do it. However, one has to be creative. Think of this as brain surgery, only one is doing it with words. Human beings are born lacking a filter to protect them from the conditioning they will receive over the most vulnerable years of their lives. The task is to construct an artificial filter, re-program and reboot the brain. — Once that's been fixed, you're a philosopher and you're good to go.

 

 

 


Why art moves us

 

Time I said something about art. Aesthetics is a topic that is often in danger of getting squeezed out of the academic curriculum. A philosophy department rarely has more than one aesthetician on their staff. So when he or she goes on maternity leave — sorry, the course is cancelled this semester!

At one time, I fancied the idea of being a painter, but philosophy drew me back. (I wasn't that good, it was no loss to the art world.)

Today, I'm writing to the accompaniment of Ministry of Sound's Clubbers Guide to Ibiza (2001). I felt the need for something with a beat. I've never clubbed and never holidayed in Ibiza, yet this music moves me. I can feel the beginnings of a smile twitching around the corners of my mouth. Maybe the thought of white sands and bikini-clad beach goddesses has something to do with it too...

 

Jake asked, 'What is the purpose of aesthetics? Why are we so moved by poetry, music and art? And why do our tastes of such things differ from one person to the next? None of these are necessarily essential for survival, yet we hold them in high regard in our life. Furthermore, our tastes for such things change over time. Can this be explained in a logical sense? Is man a rational animal to hold these things in such high esteem? How are these things pertinent to us in our day-to-day individual fights for survival we call life?'

 

...I love this. Thank you, Jake.

Here's me trying to do something more than just write another book on philosophy — another can of beans. I want to make this art. (I'm not Andy Warhol.) It's what every writer secretly wants. — Well, OK, I'll settle for something to warm you up on a rainy night when there's nothing particularly good on TV.

Nietzsche fancied himself as an 'artist' when he wrote Also Spracht Zarathustra. Not being a German speaker, I can only comment on the English translations I have seen. Nietzsche was a brilliant writer, but a great poet he was not. It doesn't matter. In a strange way, the arch, awkward prose adds a certain spice. This man is driven.

Jake's question about art is posed against the background of the human 'fight for survival' and the things that are 'essential for life'. It could be argued that he has stacked the deck right from the start. Why should we accept that the things we value must be measured against that austere standard?

What is the value of life? or survival? How many hours (or minutes?) of my life would I give up for the chance to listen to this great CD? Perhaps not that many, but still it's a fair question. Life is finite. We are all going to die some time. So it's legitimate to ask how far you theoretically value quality of life over quantity — if at all.

Jake's follow-up questions effectively answer his first question: 'What is the purpose of aesthetics?' The philosophy of art — or aesthetics — seeks to account for the value that the objects of art have for us. One of the challenges for aesthetics is that this value is not constant, either between different individuals, or for the same individual over time. To that extent, aesthetic value is fragile and evanescent.

One school of aesthetic thought that deserves to be reckoned with is that the objects of art have value for the pleasure they give us. What makes art different from other pleasures is that calling something 'art' implies a standard. Quality is important, not just quantity. It takes refined taste to discern the quality of pleasure.

To take the present example, I don't know a lot about dance music CDs but I know what I like. Glancing at the reviews for Clubbers Guide to Ibiza I can see that this two CD set is rated highly, although there were some criticisms. I couldn't write a review myself because I don't know enough about DJs and mixes and suchlike. My taste is not sufficiently 'refined'. Yet my ear is capable — if I strain to make the effort — of picking up on some of the points noted in the more critical reviews.

But hold on a minute. Isn't there a much more fundamental question that we still need to ask? Why does music — or a painting, or a novel, or any art object — give us pleasure? Surely it is a remarkable fact about human nature that we like certain combinations of sounds and dislike others, or that we enjoy looking at certain kinds of object, or that we are moved by the fate of characters in fiction.

Of the three remarkable facts, the pleasure of looking seems the least difficult to explain. To the question, 'Why is a man (woman) so moved by the sight of a beautiful woman (man)?', one can only answer, 'That's just the way human beings are.' So is man (or woman) a 'rational animal' to hold sex in such high esteem? A case could certainly be made that contemporary culture is over-obsessed by sex, but that is just a matter of the relative importance of different things that we value.

This approach to aesthetics seems to fly in the face of accounts — like the theory proposed by the philosopher Schopenhauer — which stress the 'disinterested' nature of the aesthetic response. I would accept that hedonism is least useful as an explanation of the intellectual content of the art work, the fact that the artist is not merely setting out to please but making a statement.

An example would be Picasso's great painting 'Guernica' which depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Picasso's painting is not meant to be pleasing, or easy to look at. Yet we value the immensely skilful means he has chosen to convey his message. We feel that we understand more about the tragedy of the bombing of Guernica in 1937 than we could have learned from news photographs, or a literal account. The painting gives shape and depth to our emotions.

Surely, anything which gives shape and depth to human emotions enhances the quality of human life.

But how does the painting do this? There is no short, pat answer.

It is a question I ask myself, when I look at two photographs — ostensibly of the same subject — one which moves and grips me, while the other has no effect at all.

The first image says, look at this, then notice this, then compare that. There is some aspect of the image that constrains the way I direct my attention — something the author of the image sees, and wants me to see. The second image has no meaningful content over and above an inventory of the items that it describes. The first image requires to be read, the second does not. The first poses a challenge (I might try and fail to read it, or there may be more than one reading) the second merely arouses curiosity. 'Where was that photo taken?'

(I shall be coming back to the topic of photography later.)

I am happy with an eclectic account of aesthetics which says that aesthetic value can sometimes be this and sometimes be that, or sometimes both.

Consistency is in the eye of the beholder.

 

 

 


A touch of poshlust

 

Another question. I'm still not sure where that is going, so I'm casting about for leads. Anything is possible. (What else can one do? Take the day off? Too late now, I've taken decades off.)

Dave's question about the Russian word poshlust looks interesting. My grandparents came from Russia so I could claim a kind of affinity — at a stretch.

First, I need a drink. Vodka doesn't do much for me, which somewhat dents my Russian credentials. I prefer a Rusty Nail — a mix of scotch whisky and Drambuie liqueur. (You can also use Glayva whisky liqueur, a pleasant variant.) One-time favourite of the Rat Pack, less fashionable now. You have to be certain age to appreciate it. I put in twice as much whisky as Drambuie otherwise the mix is too sweet. No ice. With this powerful juice in my tank, I can keep going for hours...

 

Dave asked, 'I want to know if there is a name for the sick feeling I get from behaving in a way that I know is harmful to me and others (behaving while knowing it is harmful behavior while I am doing it but doing it nonetheless), is a waste of precious time when I could be doing productive loving things. For example, 'licking the earth' as one author put it, spending lots of money on things I don't need or pursuing a relationship that I know will be harmful to me or my kids. I thought the name was poshlust but as I look up this word it does not explain the feeling almost like dread and horror mixed together.'

 

...The Russian word poshlust is notoriously difficult to translate. To deploy the term 'poshlust' against a person or object implies that one is seeking unmask something — a work of art, a piece of writing — which makes exaggerated claims to depth or profundity, kitsch which loudly professes that it is not kitsch but the 'real thing'. Evidently, poshlust is very much in the eye of the beholder. A piece of critical writing purporting to expose an example of poshlust can itself be an example of poshlust.

What is not poshlust? This drink for starters, with its undertones of relaxed American middle-brow luxury — leather sofa, bar, sport trophies on the mantel piece, Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett playing on the hi-fi. Personally, I just like the taste. The heat of neat whisky without the bite.

I think Dave is right that one of the things the term poshlust conjures up is a lack of self-respect and decorum, going 'over the top' in totally the wrong way. If the Greek term enthusiasmos (enthusiasm) is going over the top because you have become 'possessed by the gods', then poshlust is the state of being filled — by something much less savoury. Vanity, arrogance, immoderation, narcissism — they are all in there.

(Then again, one person's 'gods' are another person's 'devils'.)

Aristotle wrangled with a problem which he inherited from Socrates: the odd doctrine that 'no-one does wrong knowingly'. Sometimes we do things we 'knew' were wrong at the time and then we feel sorry afterwards. Human beings are like that. Aristotle called this akrasia, usually translated as 'weakness of the will' or 'moral incontinence'.

However, the lack of self-control Dave is talking about doesn't exactly fit Aristotle's description. If through weakness of will you fail again and again, then you must reach the point where you know yourself too well. You give up trying. It's pointless even considering the ethics of the situation.

The feeling of 'dread and horror' which Dave describes is appropriate for the sense of hopelessness of the chronically weak willed individual, who does what he or she sees as wrong again and again, compulsively, unable to alter fixed patterns of behaviour.

A nymphomaniac or a morbidly obese glutton would be examples of individuals who fall into this category. There is a debatable line between compulsive behaviour which would be diagnosed as 'neurotic', as symptomatic of an underlying pathological cause over which the agent has no control, and behaviour which is compulsive but not neurotic. ('Nymphomania' is a term from the psychiatrist's lexicon of mental 'illnesses' — as feminists have pointed out, the compulsive lecher or sexually promiscuous male wasn't seen as 'ill' in the same way.)

The interesting issue which Dave's question raises is whether an individual can be compulsively (but not neurotically) addicted to poshlust. You see through the tawdry pretensions of a consumer product, or activity, or 'work of art' and yet you cannot resist it. This is different from recognizing a piece as kitsch and liking it for that very reason. There's nothing wrong with that. It's shameful, indeed morally shameful to be addicted to poshlust, and yet there's nothing you can do about it, for the very reason that you are are an 'addict'.

— Is the description I have just given coherent?

I suspect that it isn't. Let's take Dave's situation as a (purported) example of chronic weak will, e.g. 'pursuing a relationship that I know will be harmful to me or my kids'. The desire for 'relationship', the urge for sexual intimacy, is one of the most powerful human desires. In many cases, society may tell us that this is 'wrong', or we may have commitments (such as a spouse, or children who might be adversely affected) which clash with this desire. But is this even a case of Aristotelian 'akrasia'?

Many's the time we are made to feel ashamed — by other persons, or by society — when we ought not to feel ashamed. That's ultimately what is so hateful about the 'voice of conscience' idea. Many's the time that the voice of conscience lies.

For Nietzsche, the overriding imperative is, 'Do not make others ashamed.' Taking advantage of the moral high ground, making others ashamed, is 'slave morality'.

In the case of liking things your intellect tells you you oughtn't to like, for example seeing through the pretensions of a pretentious movie but enjoying it anyway, who is right: you or your intellect? I can see room for an argument here along the lines that we have a moral duty to ourselves not to coarsen our aesthetic sense through over-indulgence, and that there are various points along the path where you do have the choice. The problem is, that I find nearly all examples of people who habitually seek to avoid 'coarsening' themselves, pre-eminent examples the very thing they despise.

(Stuck-up prigs. There's nothing so repellant as a person parading their hypertrophied 'aesthetic sense' or 'moral conscience'.)

There's a great line in the movie The Bourne Identity (2002), just before the car chase. 'I just want to do the right thing, Marie!' pleads Jason (he actually says it twice). 'No-one does the right thing,' Marie replies laconically.

The thought that makes Dave feel so sick is the thought that he can do the right thing, or 'it's there to be done'. But is it, really?

I have a theory that Russian intellectual life is afflicted by chronic bad conscience, which will take many generations to overcome. Under the Communists, 'intellectuals' and 'philosophers' (so-called) debated apparently weighty problems, all the time aware of the vast weight of censorship bearing down, silencing any genuinely significant idea. They pretended concern for the pursuit of truth while all the time hopelessly mired in lies. Those who refused to bend ended up in the Gulags. A lucky few escaped to the West.

The very word, 'poshlust' is a perfect example of one of Richard Dawkins' toxic self-replicating 'memes'. No sooner do you learn the 'meaning' of the word than you see poshlust everywhere. You realize that you're mired in it. Your strongest desire is to infect other people with similar 'perceptions'.

I guess what I'm working up to is the thought that we are all more or less struggling in a moral miasma. There are times when you can do the right thing and times when you can't, or won't. Just as there are things you know you oughtn't to like but you do anyway.

I think the term is 'guilty pleasures'.

 

 

 


The dark side of life

 

Just one more question for now, then I am going to try to get my bearings. I feel as if I have been dropped into the middle of a maze. I have no idea how I got here. Each new chapter is like the decision whether to go right or left or straight ahead...

 

Aviral asked, 'Is it not that thinking deeply is in some way equivalent to thinking negatively? If it is not so, why were some great preachers so moved by seeing the dark side of life? Was their thinking not negative initially? Was it awareness or a sort of fear of facing the same things later in their life? Was it the fear that made them discard this materialistic world?'

 

...I'm not sure I fully understand Aviral's question. 'A sort of fear of facing the same things later in their life' — what does that mean? However, you could read the question as a response to something I wrote once...

 

Actually, I rather like looking into the abyss. When I cast my eyes around this dingy world, the tawdry sideshows that human beings call 'culture', the abyss is the only thing with any real depth. Anxiety is the only real human emotion. (I think Freud said that.) But philosophy isn't just about plumbing the dizzy depths. It's about remembering and focusing. About being present. It can sometimes be a pleasurable activity (especially if you have a taste for 'Schadenfreude') but it's not something you do for pleasure.

 

...'Tawdry sideshows' is a phrase suggested by the topic we've just looked at, poshlust. As I remarked, the problem with diagnosing poshlust is that such diagnoses so easily become examples of the very thing they deprecate.

I could talk about Freud. Or a thinker I know a bit more about (because it's my field) Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer has a reputation for being 'gloomy' but actually he is the best example of a Western philosopher I can think of for whom philosophy is a kind of eschatology or recipe for human 'salvation' — not in the Christian sense but much closer to Buddhism and the idea that this world is an illusion created by our slavery to desire. Things may be bad (the gloomy bit) but we have the power to do something about it. All one needs to do, in order to end the suffering, is to free oneself of desire. For Schopenhauer, the magic key is art. For Buddhism, there's the practice of meditation.

It doesn't matter what you want, what enticing pleasure or rare possession you've set your heart on. The joy soon dissipates. You get what you want, then you are disappointed to find that you are no happier than you were before. So you start searching for some new object of desire.

The best example of this line of thought is something I remember from Colin Wilson's new Preface, written many years later, to his first book The Outsider (1956). As a young man, determined to lose your virginity, nothing seems more enthralling and desirable than the sexual act. Finally, you succeed in getting some hapless girl into bed. And afterwards you lie there staring at the ceiling and thinking, 'Was that it?'

The existential sentiment is expressed perfectly in the Peggy Lee song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, 'Is That All There Is?' — That thought is the beginning of philosophy.

In the end, everything goes. But isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what a good Buddhist wants? to achieve a state which is not death, but the nearest damn thing to it? — Nietzsche and Freud saw through that. I prefer to live.

This leaves me feeling a bit sick. That's not my shade of black. My black is much closer to a Nietzschean black. But even Nietzsche is ultimately too religious for my taste. (His notion of 'self-overcoming' is so Christian.) I'm trying to think of a philosopher who epitomizes the contemptuous rejection of 'all things white and wonderful'. Offhand, I can't think of any. Most of the thinkers who venture to the dark side, in whatever way they do it, secretly hanker after the colour white.

Maybe Max Stirner, in The Ego and His Own. Why do anarchists like the colour black? Does anyone know? (Stirner wasn't an anarchist. He repudiated the anarchist utopia of brotherly and sisterly love — just more 'wheels in the head' — but anarchists seem to love him. Marx found his ideas loathsome.)

I say the problem is also the cure. The bored lament, 'Is that all there is?' describes your predicament. But it's also a key to the solution, because if you make sufficient effort in directing your gaze inwards, you see through it. If nothing has meaning then everything has meaning. 'The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man' (Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). Only it isn't. Not really. There is only the world ('all that is the case'). The rest (which 'cannot be said') is just your mood.

Snap out of it. Take a pill. Pour yourself a drink. Or, better, go out and see a movie.

And when you have snapped out of it, you will find that nothing remains to be done except to pursue the question of what is. What is showing at the Odeon tonight?

Or, if like me you have a taste for metaphysics, you can get absorbed in the question of what what is is. Everything else is a distraction (which is why one needs the dark!).

I very rarely read fiction. The last novel I remember reading from cover to cover was a pulp karate novel, a story about a young homeless man who comes upon a group of dedicated karate students sparring on the beach. He joins them and learns the true meaning of pain. Forget your Bruce Lees. The aim of karate is the brutal refashioning of the human body into a blunt weapon, which you learn to wield with exquisite grace and speed. You smash your forearm to pulp until it becomes sufficiently hardened to block any blow without flinching.

(A neighbour who once did karate — I think he was the one who lent me the book — told me that karate practitioners have terrible problems with piles. All those body hardening exercises are at the expense of weakening the pelvic floor. They should go to maternity classes.)

Think of philosophy as karate for the mind. You learn to surmount every kind of mental pain. The mind is refashioned into a weapon whose only purpose is seeking out the truth — aletheia, as the Ancient Greeks called it. Emotions, moods, desires are all distractions. Philosophers like the dark side because they love to tempt themselves, test themselves.

I understand this gung ho attitude but at the same time something about it also repels me. — I still hanker for my comforts and my objects of desire.

 

 

 


Yellow crystals

 

Is every maze soluble — by logic? That's something I don't know without looking it up — in case some maths professor has written a proof about it. I'm guessing the answer is, no.

We're assuming that you don't have a way to remember or mark the paths you've been down before — and doubled back on — otherwise, the rule is, 'Exhaust all the possible routes and you'll eventually get there.' Assuming the maze is finite, of course.

And you live long enough.

No piece of chalk. Maybe you had the bright idea of tearing off bits of your clothing and dropping them at intervals, but eventually you will be stark naked.

You don't have a compass. You can only guess the distance you've walked, the angle of every left or right turn, the radius of every curve, etc. So dead reckoning is a non-starter.

Lost in a maze. One variety of tragic irony. You don't know if you've been this way before, once, or a hundred times. You could be making the same mistake, over and over.

'It's an investigation. A hunt... For I know not what.' — Well, OK, but face the fact that the truth won't necessarily come out. For all you know, you could be doomed to go round and round in circles forever.

So I might fail. So what?

Considering how many times I've failed before, at so many things... but I'm not even going there.

Why is the possibility of failure a bad thing? Wouldn't it be worse if every time you tried something, you succeeded? What would it even mean in that case to try anything?

I remember once trying to explain Norman O. Brown's Freud-inspired theory in Life Against Death about writers symbolically playing with their faeces — to my mother, of all people. We were in the kitchen. My mother was busy at the stove.

'I thought you wanted to learn how to make tournedos rossini? Anyway, I don't agree. It's not that complicated.'

'Why not?'

'A child is so proud of its poo-poo. You look in the potty and see that it has done a nice quantity. 'Well done!', you exclaim with delight, and the child is so happy. That was your first act of creation. Trust me, a mother knows.'

Times like this, I realize how dim I am, or can be. One observation is worth a hundred theories.

The eye is an extension of the brain. But then so is a camera lens, in the hands of someone who knows how to use it. (Something I'll talk about.) Attentive observation, you need love for that.

A theory is just a theory. Anyone can have a theory. Area 51. Crop circles. Evolution. My professional training is in scepticism. I don't advance theories, I don't believe them, not in the way you believe something that you have direct evidence for. In science, a theory is 'on the table', something you look for ways to disprove.

The confirmation of the Higgs Boson is a case in point. Physicist Stephen Hawking's reaction to the news was instructive. The announcement was disappointing, he said, because the greatest advances in science occur when an experiment gives a result you didn't expect.

I'm looking for evidence, for 'clues'. It's a clue when a particular thought, a particular memory, occurs to me, at this precise point in time. Nothing happens by accident. There's always a reason, isn't there?

Freud famously relied on the principle that everything a patient says — every detail of a dream for example — is significant. Nothing is accidental. If the colour of the rug in your dream was red, then the fact that you remembered and reported it as being red must mean something.

But that's just Freud's theory (text books call it 'psychological determinism'). Theories can be wrong. Maybe the colour of the rug in your dream doesn't mean anything. Maybe the fact that you dreamed of a rug doesn't mean anything. Maybe the fact that humans dream doesn't mean anything (actually, I think it does but we'll get to that).

And maybe the fact that an idea occurs to me at a particular time and not another time doesn't mean anything either. It just occurred.

My brain sparking away, doing its thing. Maybe.

In the end, all one can do is pay attention. Give every piece of evidence its due. Keep it all together, don't lose track of the bits. Remember what Socrates said? Without the art of memory you are lost. You can't rely on books — or your science project notes.

With memory, you can still get lost but at least you have a sporting chance of navigating a path through the maze.

— I learned what it is to be a scientist in the process of failing to become one. This is typical of me, in fact it says a great deal. My first university kicked me out and they had pretty good reasons for doing so.

Imagine an experiment whose single aim is to produce a particular kind of yellow crystals. For the purposes of the story, the formula isn't important, although the colour is.

I should have said, I was training to be a chemist.

Everyone else in the class got yellow crystals. Mine were dirty brown. To make matters worse, the amount I produced (the 'yield' in technical jargon) was about half as much as everyone else.

Why? I got bored staring at liquid heating in a flask. I let my attention wander. I didn't keep a close enough watch on the thermometer, I allowed the chemicals to mix too fast. Et cetera. You get the gist.

This didn't happen once, it happened many times, in all sorts of creative and amusing ways. It would make a useful book for first-year chemistry students. How not to do it.

Fact is, I didn't have the patience, the care, the attention span of a scientist. I was made of the wrong stuff. I admit it. And yet, I learned something that I value to this day: I know what it is to be a scientist, to set this up as an ideal to follow.

Those who can, do. Those who can't, philosophize.

 

 

 


Sky Diver

 

Hurtling

Towards the Earth

Without a parachute

There is yet hope

A small chance

All I need

Is a sufficiently large

Trampoline

Or else a mountain

Of cotton wool

 

...Remembering a comment one of my London University lecturers Roger Scruton made once about a book on our ethics reading list. I forget the name of the author. The book was useful to look at he said although it was 'mostly cotton wool'.

I have all sorts of associations with cotton wool. Clouds. Soft landings. Keeps you warm. Mops up spilled blood. To this day, I can't quite shake the image out of my mind of a book literally stuffed full of cotton wool.

'The book would have been better if it had been a lot shorter.' I think that's what Roger meant.

I love to watch the clouds go by. I can spend hours doing that. But right now I'm more concerned with the ground rushing forward to meet me. I've taken my leap, made a few marks on the canvas — and now the realization begins that I have not the slightest idea where this is going. (Or, rather I do, only too well.)

I wanted to talk about language and the way 'sense comes nonsense and nonsense from sense'.

I wanted to talk about the nature of art — and photography in particular, a passion that predates my passion for philosophy.

I need to say something about the incurable mental illness known as 'religion' because it is so close to what I am doing. And yet so far.

Philosophy is a main topic, of course, but especially the branch of philosophy known as metaphysics — the theory of the 'elephant in the room', the answer to the question 'what what is is'.

(My side swipes at academic philosophy are not intended to be hurtful or unfriendly. Academic philosophers need something from the outside to shake them up a bit. Complacency is too strong a temptation, even when it doesn't lead to arrogance. The professional philosophers I've known have almost all been modest and dedicated. And yet in their modest and dedicated way they have helped steer the subject into a cul-de-sac.)

Get rid of the idea that we are here to make points against one another or to spin arguments. The medium is the message. This is about words, and using words to help one see something one did not see before. Instead of taking the shortest route between A and B I am taking the longest — or at least as long as I can spin it out.

(If A is where I am now and B is the ground, you can see why!)

How to proceed?

Time for another question...

 

Alvin asked, 'In the Myth of Sisyphus, I don't quite understand the core concept of absurdity. Camus says that our attempt to find a meaning of life is futile. But it is possible that we make our own isn't it? Roger Federer's meaning of life might be enjoying the best out of tennis and having a great family. Camus also said that we tend to avoid the absurd feeling through the so called 'act of eluding' which manifests itself as hope. Is Federer's meaning of life hope in this case? What is Federer eluding then? What is so unfruitful about this thought, this playing tennis? Isn't this the true meaning of life?'

 

...Many, or most people — including Alvin — faced with the choice of contemplating the absurdity of human existence or being Roger Federer would choose to be Roger Federer. (If you're a woman, pick your favourite female tennis champ.) On Alvin's reading, however, Camus would rather contemplate the absurdity of human existence. This is preferable to succumbing to the illusion of hope, eluding the existential question which every human being must ultimately face.

In other words, the case of Roger Federer is (according to Alvin) a reductio ad absurdum of Camus' views on absurdity.

The first thought that occurs to me is, How can Alvin be so sure that Federer hasn't read Camus?

Let's imagine two Roger Federers, Federer-one and his counterpart Federer-two. Federer-one has read Camus, Federer-two has never heard of the French philosopher. Asked whether he thinks life is absurd, Federer-two replies, 'How can my life be absurd? I have my tennis, and my family!' Federer-one, on the other hand, says, 'Yeah, I agree. I like to read Camus in the locker room, it helps me focus on my game.'

Federer-two doesn't concern us. There are many people like Federer-two, crowding the pages of Hello and celebrity-babies.com, but they are of no interest to philosophy.

Federer-one, on the other hand, is a challenge. To appreciate, intellectually, the absurdity of existence, the absurdity of every human project, does not require that one feels this, the way a person actually contemplating suicide might feel it. That's the claim. Federer-one is justifiably proud of his achievements on the tennis court, as he is of his family. Life is good. Then what exactly does he get out of reading Camus?

There is a superficial way of understanding this, an impression one might gain from someone like Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. 'Remember at the moment of your greatest glory, that you are destined to die. Your body will on day be dust.' Or words to that effect. Victorious Roman athletes were crowned with a garland of laurel leaves, as a symbolic reminder of human mortality.

You can accept the fact of death, and with it the realization that everything we achieve will eventually be taken from us without seeing this as making all our efforts and striving absurd. Surely, to be limited in time, as all human goods must be, does not take away from their intrinsic value?

But Camus is claiming something more. It is not merely the transience of the things we value that concerns him, but the fact that they are only valuable because we value them, and so long as we value them. To value X, or not to value X, is ultimately a matter of each person's existential choice regardless of what X may be.

If Federer-one spends three frustrating hours working on a problem with his backhand volley, and you ask, 'What's so great about being a tennis champion anyway?' and he replies, 'Sure, I've read my Camus, there's nothing great about it other than that I choose to care,' then spends another three hours practising the same stroke, we are entitled to ask whether he is being sincere. The effort he puts in is proof that he really does care, not in the way of someone who arbitrarily 'chooses to care' but rather in the way of someone who sees something out there that is worthy of being cared about.

Compare this with scepticism. The sceptic asserts, 'There is no such thing as knowledge,' then outside the classroom continues to live a normal life. You wouldn't drive a car if you feared the engine might catch fire. But if you say you don't know that your car is safe to drive, what the hell are you doing getting behind the wheel?

But is there anything actually seen? Or is it just something we imagine, a fact about our human psychology? That's the question.

Plato thought there was something to be seen, something objectively out there. That was the point of his theory of Forms. Values are real, they are not just 'made' by us. The theory of Forms is an inspiring metaphysical vision. But taking Plato's theory as the literal truth is to be seduced by soft-focus fantasy.

It isn't real. There's nothing out there to see.

Or, supposing that there was, what difference would it make? You still have to value (choose to value!) the thing that you see, or seem to see 'out there'.

Nothing to be seen?!

I think philosophy is important. The most important thing there is. I see it. But isn't that just a fact about me? I choose to value philosophy. You may choose to value something else. If that's all it is, why am I even trying to get you to see — if you don't already?

 

 

 


Ring quest

 

There is something... deep. Whether you believe in metaphysics or you reject metaphysics, whether you think there's something there to know, or whether you reject the idea — either way, that would be deep and interesting knowledge...

Whatever it is, it's difficult. It will take a lot of effort. I'm conscious that I'm only just starting out. I'm just walking down that lovely forest pathway, you know, with all the birds, and the green leaves, and the sun coming through the trees, and... two or three weeks down the line I shall be — or whenever — treading the barren wastes of Mordor.

Because that's just how it starts. It starts in a very nice way, then it gets more and more difficult, more and more nasty, the deeper you get.

 

...At the time of writing, that was my last YouTube video. I never did reach Mordor. Maybe that pleasure is still to come?

Get rid of any romantic notions you may have held about being on some heroic 'quest'. It's brutal and filthy down here. I'm talking about the history of philosophy — and my own philosophical journey too.

Philosophy is a battle where no victories are won. The best one can hope to do is survive to fight another day. — It's a point of view.

Then why do I feel so cheerful?

Gazing around, as far as my eye can see are fields and fields of hacked off limbs and bleeding stumps. Blood and steaming guts. Heads without torsos, torsos without heads. Crows and seagulls picking daintily at the carrion...

 

As I gird on my armour, squinting in the sunlight, I feel a sense of lightness, the slightest nudge and I would begin to float. I am floating. Bathed in warmth, waiting to be born. Indeed! The weight of years is falling away — at long last. The harsh twine around my wrists and ankles has withered away, the soreness almost healed. The memories are less painful than they were. A dull ache, the occasional pang. The incidents in my oddly uneventful life are laid out as in a comic strip — no lurid colours, just tasteful shades of grey. It was meant to be. Now, to business. There's a whiff of carnage in the air. The breeze from the future. But nothing is certain, my dear Meursault. Only that battle will be joined, and many will die under my sword... before I fall!

 

...Bloody hell.

I remember when I wrote this. As I saw it (in my naivety?) I was letting go of a painful past. How did my life improve? There are various measures of quality. Maybe it did, on some absolute scale.

The romantic view of reality. There's the truth, and then there's the tale you weave around the facts, in your attempt to make sense of it all. Are all stories false? — Say what you like, make up any story you like, it doesn't make any difference.

''What is truth?' said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer.' Francis Bacon offered that neat synopsis of the New Testament story — which could have been true.

The truth is, nobody, not even a philosopher (or would-be philosopher) can live with the plain, unvarnished truth. The scientists crowding the Large Hadron Collider are living in a colourful world of their own invention. Thrilling and awe inspiring as the realm of ultimate particles may be, occasionally one has to take a shit...

('Oops!' said Eminem, 'there goes gravity!')

There is something deep. That's the point I was making in my YouTube video. It's not all just 'jumble and rubble'. The biggest danger — and you know this — is in the temptation to romanticize the search.

The dreams, the images have changed. Once, the image of a beautiful flowered garden allured me: the ideal place for a philosopher to rest, the place I would reach when I had understood... XYZ. (It doesn't matter what XYZ was.)

Then, there was the love of books. I don't mean the contents of books, I mean the objects themselves, the smell and feel of the creamy paper, the weight in my hands. That feeling is all but gone now. Which gives a particular poignancy to this attempt... at writing a book.

I admire Wittgenstein especially because of his ultra hard-nosed attitude to just the thing I have been talking about: his intellectual fastidiousness (which he shares with Nietzsche, funnily enough, though it's not always apparent on the surface). The refusal to be seduced by what I called 'soft-focus fantasy'. I learned a lot from Wittgenstein and Nietzsche.

Philosophers who are insufficiently ruthless about philosophy's past are doomed to be entrapped by it. One of the more admirable things about Oxford 'ordinary language' philosophy in the 50s — J.L. Austin and his cronies — was that they clearly understood this.

As I am not. What I am entrapped by is my past. That struggle has only just begun.

It will take some time to get used to this, to wean myself off the 'ring quest' idea.

There is no final chapter, no ending — happy or unhappy. No 'culmination of the quest'. Only death which brings all things to an end.

Meanwhile, the search goes on. Not a noble or heroic search, just a search. My search. No explanation or justification needed, no 'why' or 'because'. In the place of heroism... curiosity. Yes, that's it. I am curious. Regardless of any consequences, I want to know.

 

 

 


Performance coach

 

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.

I am slipping in time. I am no longer here. I swear if anyone were watching me now, they would see my body flicker and fade like H.G. Wells' time traveller.

 

...I was waiting for my daughter to finish her swimming lesson. I fell into a swoon. Maybe it was the smell of chlorine that reminded me of my chemistry days. All my memories seemed to come at once.

I fumbled the tiny keys on my Psion pocket computer.

The last 20 years, my main job has been a philosophy performance coach. That's a more accurate label than 'teacher'. My undergraduate students often knew more than I did about a topic, or, at least, they'd read more. I was showing them how to get better at being a philosopher. The rest, they largely did for themselves.

That's something I could write a book about — which is not this book — intellectual performance. The 'inner game' you learn to play, if you want to get really good in philosophy.

The main problem is — as much as I know, assuming that I do have words of wisdom to impart — is that my sense of what it takes to 'be a philosopher' is irredeemably idiosyncratic. I'm certainly not in the business of telling anyone (as if I knew) how to be successful in the world of academic philosophy. If not that, then what?

One could take refuge in irony. Really what this is about is a critique of academic philosophy. My own, idiosyncratic slant. Would anyone buy that?

— I've already said. Irony is out.

The person reading this (my ideal reader) does not want to learn how to be a philosopher. That should be the last thing on your mind!

And yet...

There is some truth in the idea that 'everyone is a philosopher'. Whatever you do, and whatever your interests. You have a view about yourself and your life, how you fit in to the scheme of things, how you fit into society. The reason why you are here. That's your philosophy.

Doing philosophy is about adjusting that view. I won't say 'improving' it because you alone are the judge. No-one has the right to criticize. If it feels good, it is good. Philosophy should make you feel good, otherwise it is useless. 'The words of a philosopher who offers no therapy for human suffering are empty,' said Epicurus. — He meant genuine therapy, of course, not quack remedies.

If you're not happy with the results, fire the coach.

Why philosophize? The world has you in so many ways. Ways you don't even realize. And some that you do — only too well. There is something you can do about it. Push back!

You've been lied to — in so many ways. You've been sold dreams that turned out to be fake and illusory. You've been pandered to and manipulated. The tinsel coating rubs away revealing the rusty metal underneath.

Was that expensive toy you set your heart on so desirable? Objects don't love you back. Every penny you spend is bought at the cost of your own slavery...

 

It doesn't matter

What TV channel you watch

They're all showing the same thing

LIFE...

Is one long ad break

Sweets and toys

For girls and boys

Rows of milky breasts down the high street

Otherwise known as cash machines

Go to the milky breast

Drink deep

Stay asleep

 

...Philosophy sets you free. Philosophy is the ultimate expression of human freedom. That's what I believe. A little philosophy goes a long way. That's all that is happening here. You're getting a small but concentrated dose of philosophy. No sugar needed on the pill because it feels good to be free, doesn't it?

 

 

 


A wolf's sense of smell

 

Picture a church jumble sale at the end of the day. The tables messily spread with old clothes, random tat, every kind of useless artifact. Fancy goods that tourists bring back from their holidays and throw in some dark cupboard — like those absurd decorated Spanish bottles that you would never dream of using to serve up wine to your dinner guests.

And yet, amongst all this jumble and rubble, you know that there is something of value, if only you could... sniff it out?

To a jaundiced eye 'jumble and rubble' sums up much of the history of human thought. So many ideas once shiny and new, now discarded as so much rubbish. What ever was the attraction? you wonder with a mixture of amazement and disgust. Every variety of human folly is here.

I sometimes think my sense of smell is my keenest sense. Eyes and ears can be deceived, but when something smells nice, I know that it will be nice. If it smells off, I know it is off.

(Ha ha, just remembering when I wrote, 'respected dons... know how to sniff out where the grant money is coming from like pigs searching for truffles.' That was in defence of my profession as sophist, against the charge of being mercenary — out for profit rather than any 'higher' motive. Pah!)

I guess what this is working up to is that I choose to put my trust, not in my intellect (limited as I know it is) but in something else, a sense that has been honed over decades, keenly aware of the tiniest nuances, ever alert, focused on the moment.

A wolf's sense of smell...

 

Here in the wilderness

I have learned to survive

It's no hardship

I love the barren wastes

When I find food I gorge

I sing to myself

The horizon recedes

As I advance

The wind

Blows away

The trace of my footsteps

 

...What is 'thinking'? Reason and logic play only a small part (they come in late in the day when you are assembling an argument, making a case). For me, thinking is more about seeing, feeling. — I mean, the kind of seeing you do when your eyes are closed or in pitch darkness.

Like holding a stone in my hands and turning it over, feeling for cracks or fissures. Imagining things upside down, inside out, back to front, jumbled together and separated again. Calling out, and waiting for an echo. Counting the pulse throbbing in my ears.

Above all, remembering.

All the philosophers I have ever met, all my former teachers, are with me now. My permanent front-row audience. And, behind them, rows and rows going up and up into the distant reaches of the auditorium — angels, from the lowest rank to the highest. My imaginary heavenly host.

The thought comforts me, even though I know it is only my own invention. When my eyes are closed I am still bathed in light.

How do you measure the strength of an emotion? the sheer, raw power of desire?

When Plato and Aristotle talked about the experience of 'wonder' that's what they meant. Not some abstract intellectual construct. Silly! This is about the intense desire for truth. What a religious person would call the desire to 'see the face of God' and I call... something else. Something unspeakable (and perhaps therein lies the closest connection — 'I am that I am', Parmenides 'It is').

— This is the thing. Indulging in soft-focus fantasy will not take you a step closer to your goal. That's the point Nietzsche and Wittgenstein made. You can imagine all sorts of things — anything you like — but the only thing that counts is the hard, unyielding truth.

There is method in my madness. Extreme circumstances require extreme measures.

That's why I find contemporary academic philosophy so unsatisfying. It is as if no-one is aware how terrifyingly deep these problems are. You just shrug it off. It's all just different theories. The subject matter for polite debate. 'Is this point good enough to make a journal article out of?' — Don't worry, you'll find a way to spin it...

 

The night before last, I slept for an inordinate length of time. I didn't get up until nearly 11, which is unheard of for me. I had awoken with a feeling of peace and beatitude that I haven't known for weeks, or months. I know what my philosophy is. That was the thought that came to me, just like that. I lay there, for perhaps an hour or more, just contemplating what that meant, the enormity of it.

Of course, I knew. It wasn't a surprise. But you can 'know' and and you can 'know'. The important thing is how you know what you know, the feelings and emotions with which you invest that knowledge.

My philosophy isn't the question I'm after.

That's the key point. The question I'm after, the ultimate nature of existence, has been dangling in front of me for decades. The chances of answering the question, or even making progress, are close to zero. But my philosophy is settled. I have been living it, all this while.

'I accept myself and my nature as a given fact.'

As Jim Morrison sang, into this world you and I were thrown. I didn't ask to be, but I'm here. How such a fact is possible at all, is part of my ultimate question, but I accept it as a fact nonetheless. I find that I am in agreement with David Hume, that desire is the only possible reason for action. 'Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.' There is no Kantian categorical imperative, no reality of Platonic Forms, no absolute ethical command. What moves me to act is everything I am, the sum total of what I have been made and what I have become.

(I've just remembered an incident from a few days ago. I'd gone for a coffee and a ciabatta at Starbucks. A drunk barged in. 'What's the greatest rock band you've ever seen?' he regaled startled customers as he steered between the tables. Then, when no-one replied, his combative tone changed abruptly to self-pity. 'I didn't ask to be an alcoholic! I didn't ask to be born!' He was politely ushered out by the young assistant manager.)

That is not to say that deciding what to do isn't a creative process — the point of existentialism. One of the wonders of being human is our ability to knock the pieces over and start again, or do the opposite of what anyone would have predicted.

(Just as another aside, the rain is pelting down. The thought came to me, 'At least my car will get a wash.' Then, out of nowhere, a memory fragment of Paul Rodgers of the band Free singing that he would give his girlfriend everything except his guitar — and his car!)

I accept, as a fact, that I am driven by forces I do not understand. Unlike some, I don't feel any strong impulse to want to understand them. That is part of accepting myself as a 'given fact'.

The path that I have taken is not a path that many choose, but I chose it, and that's all that matters. Why I chose it, why I am the way I am, isn't important.

I am here, and I have achieved nothing. No matter. No proudly singing, 'I did it my way,' because I haven't done it, and probably never will. I am content to be here, to be myself.

 

...Everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever done, was necessary in order for me to become the person that I am.

Writing this book is necessary.

It is not necessary to ask why.

 

 

 


Good study habits

 

Lauren asked, 'I'm trying to think of ways Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean relates to my own study habits. I know one good point that Aristotle makes that relates to studying is that a virtuous man does not learn virtue by just studying a book for tips and techniques. Similarly, you can read how to do statistics from a math textbook and learn techniques and methods but the only way to learn truly is from experience of actually doing problems. Am I on the right track? That's the only point I can think of.'

 

...Aristotle was undoubtedly a great philosopher, but sometimes he goes to annoying lengths in stating the obvious.

The doctrine of the mean is about striking a balance between competing or conflicting considerations. To acquire a 'virtue' — whether it be a moral virtue, or the virtue of a pianist, or pole vaulter, or philosopher — is an achievement, as is the performance of a 'virtuous' act. Striking a balance requires refined practical judgement, a capacity which improves the more you exercise it.

To acquire the virtues of the weight lifter, for example, isn't just about building up your muscles to the greatest possible extent. Muscle groups have to work in harmony, or you will cause yourself an injury — it is no mean feat to keep your balance when lifting and pressing a 400 hundred pound barbell. Of course, you can learn a lot from a book provided you do the exercises as well.

A trainer helps.

So much for Aristotle.

The idea of 'good study habits' has been the bane of my existence for as long as I can remember. At school, I was more often bottom of the class. End of term school reports were something to dread. I remember one miserable day, being driven home in my father's car, while he berated me for my poor results. What was the problem? 'I'm just bone idle, I guess.' My father roared back, 'No-one is born idle!' I didn't have the nerve to correct him.

It's a sensitive subject. Even today, thinking about the work waiting on my desk I imagine having a mountain to climb. I would much rather just stare out the window and watch the clouds go by. Years of practice don't seem to have helped. Nietzsche (a good Aristotelian) famously remarked, 'What does not kill me makes me stronger.' But I doubt that. Surmounting the same obstacles, day after day, will eventually wear you down.

(Nietzsche spent the last 12 years of his life in a catatonic state after experiencing a catastrophic nervous breakdown.)

What we're talking about is not just proficiency or success — this is about spiritual survival.

A dream I once had seems to encapsulate my feelings about this...

 

I'm walking down the high street where I live, and a man in a shabby suit stops me. Can I help him with something? 'Well, OK, what is it?' The man takes out a green card with gold lettering from his wallet. He's a salesman, selling leather furniture. Trembling, the man goes through a parody of a sales pitch, talking way too fast, looking past my right shoulder as he speaks. It's obvious that he's having a nervous breakdown. I pull myself away. Hurrying, I catch a glimpse behind me of the salesman shaking the door of a furniture shop. There's a pale light at the back. The shop is closed.

As I walk on, determined not to think about what I have just witnessed, I notice a severed male forearm lying on the pavement, pointing in my direction, hand palm down, fingers slightly curved. The clean pink skin is glistening but there's no trace of blood. No-one else on the busy street seems to have noticed. I continue on my way. Then I see a second forearm. A perfect match. This time, the thought reluctantly occurs to me, 'I should really report this to the Police.' But this is quickly followed by another thought. 'Someone else is bound to.'

The pavement is starting to break up. Now I'm climbing over broken boards and chicken wire. A few feet below me I can see the dark waters of a river or canal. Too scared of falling to stand upright, I clamber on all fours. As I struggle to keep my footing, I'm thinking, 'This is what happens to people when they grow old.' Then, 'Why have I become so fearful?'

 

...Thankfully, that's when I woke up.

I'm content to forget most of my dreams. I don't look for Freudian explanations. But this one is different. It was almost as if I was going through a kind of rehearsal of feelings I often experience, but in a far more eloquent and connected way than could ever happen in real life. It had the hallmark of truth.

It's a scary world out there. No-one even notices severed limbs strewn on the pavement any more. Some poor guy is staggering around, arms chopped off at the elbows. Or maybe he's just dead. But that's not my problem. Or is it? What about the luxury furniture salesman. Is that about me and my philosophy school? There but for the grace of God?

I'm clambering, trying to keep my balance. I'm totally focused on my goal. Any moment, I could find myself slipping, drowning in the icy cold water. — To succeed, practice and good habits aren't enough. You have to push yourself beyond your limits.

Real moral problems always catch you on the hop. You are never prepared. Aristotle's man of virtue is a parody of the truth. I'm not talking about the struggle against our meaner motivations but rather the feeling of desperate inadequacy that rises up when you are faced with... what is it for you?

Everyone faces his or her own unique challenge, ethical or otherwise. Human nature is too precious to squeeze into a mould. I was always happier when my students struggled and agonized. Better that you stumble and fall than accomplish your essay with easy virtue. Sure, if we're talking about something narrow like learning to do routine statistical calculations, you just keep doing it until you 'get good' at it. But getting good is only part of the real struggle, and the smaller part at that.

Classical pianists at the top of their profession typically practice six hours per day. That's about as much as delicate joints and sinews can bear. Even if you've had piano lessons, you can hardly begin to comprehend what it's like to be up there, balancing on the brink, repeatedly trying — and failing, or succeeding — to translate the spirit of a musical composition into masses in motion and sound waves.

I'm talking about what Aristotle talked about, virtue, the pursuit of excellence. You will get good, if you work at it — whatever 'it' is. But don't imagine that as you get better it will get easier. As your ability increases, so does the challenge exponentially.

'Work is hard,' my father used to say.

 

 

 


The colour black

 

Rain, and yet more rain. In the background, just loud enough to be distracting, music from the movie Escape From New York is playing on my computer in a continuous loop. Three minutes, twelve point nine seconds. Then the opening bars start up again. The dark sky reminded me.

Starring Kurt Russell, and made in 1981, the post-apocalyptic film noir describes a walled-in New York City converted into the ultimate penal colony. Ex-con Russell, with black eye-patch, is sent in to rescue the U.S. President when Air Force One is lost between the skyscrapers.

The date is March 27th 2000, four years after the events depicted in the movie. For the last forty-five minutes I have been staring at a blank page of my 'Glass House Philosopher' blog. I've tried and rejected a dozen topics. Nothing works. All I can think about is the colour black...

 

At Oxford, I supplemented my grant by singing and playing guitar at a local bar. The Monk's Retreat was a cellar dating from the middle ages, now taking the rougher custom from the pub-restaurant chain upstairs. Two hundred yards along 'The High' stood the gates of University College, where I was based.

One of my favourite numbers came from the pens of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Paint it Black.

'I want to paint it all black — black as night, as coal. I want to blot the sun out from the sky.'

Fine lyrics.

Then another great favourite with the crowd, Robert Zimmerman, Knocking on Heaven's Door.

'Mama, bury my guns — they're no use to me any more. I can see a long black cloud coming down.'

I shall argue the case that black is the colour of philosophy. This has nothing to do with my mood.

 

FIRST PROPOSITION Black is what you see when you close your eyes — when you shut off your senses and listen to your thoughts.

 

René Descartes did his best philosophy snuggled up in bed. His 'Meditations on First Philosophy' were written in a darkened stove room, by the fire. Descartes' case for the dualism of mind and body involves a monumental struggle to free pure thought from the snares of sense perception and imagination. 'First philosophy' is founded upon innate ideas planted in the human mind by God. Without that foundation, human knowledge would be no better than a dream given to us by an evil demon. — Black is the prevailing colour of this all-time classic.

 

SECOND PROPOSITION The blue sky — is a nothing but a lie.

 

There's no ceiling, no pastel shaded dome. Above our heads is the rest of the universe. The day and night time skies are related as Appearance to Reality. — I remember an American business student once telling me, 'Philosophy takes the roof off.' I pictured David (I think that was his name) lying back on his leather sofa in the evening watching TV — as the ceiling of his high-rise apartment was ripped off like the top of a candy bar. In my mind, I reached in with my hand, picked up the tiny figure and shook him.

'There! See!'

 

THIRD PROPOSITION Philosophers wear white robes when they aspire to be priests — or scientists.

 

The philosophy of mind is fast becoming a branch of computer science. The study of metaphysics has been reduced to semantics. These ideas are patently shallow, but the grant committees are easily taken in by the promise of concrete results. And they are the one's who have the power to decide.

 

...You get out of bed (the wrong side) knowing with complete certainty that absolutely nothing is going to happen today. Unless, by some monumental effort, you make it happen.

Anything is better than nothing. That's as good a description as any of the majority of my blog posts over the years.

And yet, they have served a purpose. They keep me company, all my former selves.

Like Descartes, I love to philosophize in bed. Some of my best ideas come to me just as I'm waking from sleep. Those are the good days. (Better be quick. You let yourself drop off, and when you wake up again, nine tenths of the precious thought has gone beyond all recollection.)

As for the bad days — lately, I've been able to indulge myself. Rather than get out of bed on the wrong side, I just stay in bed. For as long as it takes to improve my mood. Sometimes it works, sometimes I just stay in bed and dream the day away.

I dream and remember.

My earliest memories are of clanking machinery, belching smoke, men in mud splattered helmets and overalls, conveyor belts carrying an endless procession of green and ochre coloured earth — from a tunnel my father was building at South Shields Colliery for the National Coal Board.

Four years old, in a lumberjack jacket, the gaffer's lad. There's a black and white photo somewhere. Me in my tiny specs.

And this is my life now, walking down a dark tunnel — inside my own mind. I could stay here forever. Make my home here. What need have I for a world?

I can still smell the petrol fumes and the cold, damp clay.

Sliding on the slippery mud.

Like Gollum, I forget what daylight looks like.

— And now just remembering a cruel comment one of my teachers made about me, 'He so clearly wants to avoid all activity.'

There must be an explanation why I gave that impression. Or was I just plain lazy? (But what does that explain?)

(Teachers love to pin labels, don't they? Bastards. Did they hate me?)

It is true, I can spend hours doing nothing. I would argue, 'doing nothing' has a purpose, a point. Although you can't see this, I am actually doing something. Exactly what that is, I wouldn't like to say. If you don't know, I can't explain it to you. I call it 'waiting', but that's just a word.

What is that? a word in my private code?

'They also serve who stand and wait.' Who said that?

To wait attentively is an action, not inaction. I can't tell you what I'm waiting for. If I knew what was coming, what I was waiting for, this wouldn't be the experience that it is. Imagine waiting at a bus stop. How different that would be, if you genuinely didn't know whether any bus was coming at all, or, better, if you didn't know whether what was coming (if anything) was a bus, or a fire-breathing dragon, or a plate of spaghetti.

I don't know what I am waiting for but I do know I am doing something. Something important. Inside me, the machine is whirring quietly, working as it was designed to do. So don't bother me, I'm busy!

— Yes, but you can only wait so long. Then you have to force it.

As I am doing now.

 

 

 


An idiotic conundrum

 

I have a recurring daytime nightmare. I am on stage with my acoustic guitar. I tune up, introduce myself to the audience, begin my set. The tables at The Monks Retreat are full. There's the usual hubbub. Beer fumes, cigarette smoke, a trace of the sickly pong of weed. Then, as I begin to sing, the room empties, one table at a time. First, a table in the far corner. Then a table in the middle. Then the table in front of me right under the microphone stand. By my fourth song the bar is almost deserted. I am singing my heart out but it has no effect.

Finally, I am alone...

 

Let go of irony

You are more worthy than that

Admit the truth

An idiotic conundrum

Has you fooled

You're not clever enough

To see past it

Condemned to repeat

Life is endless

Repetition

 

...Don't ask me what this is about. I mean this, what I am doing now — or maybe failing to do. I don't know. I realize now that I just don't know what this is — or what it could be.

Is it a novel? autobiography? a philosophy essay?

Not that it makes any difference to you one way or the other, but I am singing my heart out.

I have been thinking about the phenomenon of 'waiting' — the philosophically productive kind — and also the fear of time and the way that philosophizing seems to bring time to a halt. I wrote about a similar topic in my 'Glass House Philosopher' blog, just a month before the Millennium...

 

Like the last few days of school, no-one wants to do any work. By the end of last week, I had received only a fraction of the usual batch of course notes and essays, enough tutorial work to fill just one day. 'What a great opportunity to get things done!'

What did I do? On Monday, I went for a long joy ride in the car along the country roads to the Yorkshire town of Buxton, came home and slept the rest of the day. On Tuesday, I pulled myself together to write my letters, vowing that I would make the best of Wednesday. But I didn't. Now its Thursday. Half way into my second mug of tea, bored and depressed, I put on a little played CD of 'Essential Soul'. Then, somewhere in the middle of Fontella Bass, 'Rescue Me', the floodgates of memory opened:

'Can't you see I'm lonely?'

It's the Winter of 1971-2. A dry, bitterly cold, bright day. I am alone in my rented room in North London, sifting through my photographs, seeking for the umpteenth time to fathom their elusive, inner meaning. Looking for an incentive to brave the cold and venture out with my camera. The sharp highlights and long, crisp shadows are perfect for photography. Yet somehow I can't bear to face the glare of the sunlight. It hurts to look out of the window. Wherever I sit, the light searches me out.

Into this emptiness one day came philosophy, and I was rescued.

Yet between then and now there have been many empty days. I have come to accept that some times one needs to be bored. I'm not talking about the philosophically interesting kind of boredom when one is able for a few dark moments to think productively about the meaning of life and the ultimate nature of human existence. I mean the sapping, anxiously fretful kind of boredom I am feeling now.

We make stories of our lives. One constructs a narrative. Then all of a sudden one is ambushed by the present moment, hanging, suspended, wrenched from the past and disconnected from the future. I've written before about the terror of the future, of the thought that what is will not-be. That is not what I seem to be talking about here. What I am experiencing now, what I experienced all those years ago, is something else. Past and future hardly seem real. The problem is not the relentless, unstoppable flow of time, but rather the opposite. Time becomes viscous and sticky, the flow slows down to a trickle.

It's no good telling oneself about all the 'things that need to be done'. They don't need to be done NOW, at this very moment. As for what will need to be done, that's a world apart, another plane of existence.

 

...Photography is a problem I will come to. Another conundrum. Like the philosophical conundrum that has 'had me fooled' (has it?) over the last decades of my life.

There will be no results. The world will not be changed. Unlike a good detective story, you never get to learn 'who done it'. It is a mystery where you end up with the same questions (or more) as when you started.

The world will not be changed, but maybe I will?

Maybe this will be helpful to someone reading these words — as a 'filter', a defence against the ideology of s0-called 'common sense'.

One thing I want to do is investigate the roots of creativity.

Writing is hard — I'd forgotten how hard — but that's not the whole story. Because when I look back on the things I've done, the times I've lived through, my happiest moments when existence seemed most meaningful were when I was struggling, as I am now, with a creative project.

How can it be that the times when I've experienced the most misery were in fact times when I was most happy?

'He so clearly wants to avoid all activity.' — Is that all there is to it? Is it just a peculiar fact about me and my personal psychology?

You don't want to do anything. You just want peace and quiet and the absence of all distraction. You don't want to not do anything because you get fretful and anxious and bored out of your mind. So you swing from one extreme to the other. There's a logical explanation for the conflict. (Philosophers call it an example of a 'dialectic'.) The very same motive pushes you first in one direction, then in the opposite direction. The solution lies in creativity. In the creative process you achieve perfect stillness and perfect activity at one and the same time.

That's the concise version. I would hazard a guess that there's more to it than that.

I think progress is possible in understanding the nature of creativity. I see similarities over so many different areas — music, science, painting, photography... philosophy. The role of logic, for example. Reason is everywhere and the world is rational — if only you have the wit to see it. So often there is only one right move, the logical move.

('Life is like a game of chess,' as Bananarama once sang.)

Reason and logic aren't only verbal. Judgement isn't only verbal. When I frame an image in the camera viewfinder, I'm judging and thinking, but I'm not talking to myself. ('Mmm, the tree needs to be a little bit further to the left.' As if I couldn't see!)

I need to be working creatively.

That's why I want this. It's fate, ultimately it's out of my hands, how others will respond. The down side is that the work can never be finished. Or, rather, one has to keep on going, onto the next project, and the next...

 

 

 


Return of the evil demon

 

'I shall suppose, therefore, that there is, not a true God, who is the sovereign source of truth, but some evil demon, no less cunning and deceiving than powerful, who has used all his artifice to deceive me. I will suppose that the heavens, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things that we see, are only illusions and deceptions which he uses to take me in.' — Descartes First Meditation...

 

I know that you are playing with me, toying with me. I know that even appearance isn't what it appears to be, the very notion of illusion is a mere illusion, up is down, right is left, inside is outside and everything is completely twisted and screwed up in every possible and impossible way.

Are you me? Am I you? If not, the who the hell are you? Why do you keep bothering me?

There's a reason, there must be. There's a reason for everything. I just need to find out what it is. I didn't summon you. You came uninvited. And now that you are here, I can't see anything but you. In front of me, all around me. Inside me.

The alien. The monstrous. Am I the monster? Could I be?

I feel sick to my stomach. Sick to my heart, kidneys, liver, lungs. To my brain. Most of all, my brain, that useless mass of bloodied tissue that has weighed me down, dragged me down every wrong path.

The only remedy is to STOP THINKING.

Close my eyes. Don't look. Try not to feel.

From now on, my fingers can do the work for me. Let them tap these keys as they will. Brain and senses disconnected.

 

...Suppose the evil demon. What is truth — in the world of the evil demon? There are just two possible answers. Truth is whatever the evil demon says. The evil demon, not God, is the source of all truth. Or there is no truth, no statement is true or false, including the statement I have just made.

To change truth to falsity and falsity to truth: that would be the ultimate power. Power to change the past or the future. No mere physical power, I'm talking about the power to make any contradiction true just by willing it.

The power to turn reality into a dream...

Truth, who needs it? I can get by without truth. From now on, I will make no claims. Words will still come out of my mouth, or sound in my head, or appear on this page, but I won't be claiming or asserting any 'statement'. My words will simply be doing whatever words have the power to do, just as these plastic keys have the power to make letters appear in front of me.

... As if by magic.

What have I lost? Nothing, that I can see. I will still have this body, this desk, this keyboard, this room, this world. I can carry on just as before. Spinning words for my own pleasure, or launching verbal missiles and watching them explode.

Or suppose that there is truth. Ah, but truth is just whatever the evil demon says! Why should I believe him, or it? The evil demon is evil. But then again, why should I believe a 'good' demon? Perhaps it is better for me not to know the truth. Wouldn't even God lie — if it were necessary? Even a perfect being has to function in, interact with, an imperfect world.

The more I think about this, the more certain I feel that it doesn't matter either way. It doesn't matter if there is a God or an evil demon, it doesn't matter if there is truth or no truth. Chasing after truth is just an academic game. Nothing real depends on it.

Then what does matter? Does anything matter? Why carry on?

I am adjusting my mental attitude. Nothing more, or less. Once my mental attitude is adjusted, I can get on with my life, free of the need for endless philosophical wrangling.

(Didn't Wittgenstein say something along those lines?)

It doesn't matter? What am I saying? if the evil demon exists, then what does that make me? The evil demon's toy. The evil demon's pet. Or if God exists? Then I just one of God's playthings. I prefer the evil demon. At least I know that it's just him and me. The evil demon needs me. The deceiver needs someone to deceive. I am not without power. In God's universe, the world of the 'good' demon, I am nothing, or next to nothing.

It's a point of view.

(Consider this an argument for demon worship, but only if you are willing to embrace the view that what is real depends upon what you like. Just state your choice. If nothing is true then nothing is really 'real'.)

Human beings, formed in the suffocating close confines of a womb, expelled into the world, destined to shrivel and perish and return to dust, are a pointless excrescence, unnecessary, ridiculous.

The greatest power a human being can wield is infinitesimal compared with the forces that shaped, and continue to shape the universe. — I read that once in some coffee table book.

I feel the lack of power. I want more. I want to face the universe on equal terms.

That's what metaphysics promised. The power of Mind — isn't that what Hegel said? Nothing can resist Mind's quest for knowledge, armed with the awareness that human life is the very life and soul of the Absolute.

It was all an illusion.

A fairy tale. Just some 'story' for grizzled professors to chuckle over. Learned scholars reverting to infancy.

I am adjusting my mental attitude. I don't care what it takes. I don't care what the result will be, so long as the matter is finally settled.

 

 

 


The inverted world

 

Curled up in his stove room (or maybe it really was his bed, as I suspect) Descartes conjures up the terrifying image of a world that isn't real. A world that doesn't exist. All this... is gone. All that is really real is a dream given to me by an evil demon.

Descartes doesn't know that. But he doesn't know the opposite either. That is the point of his argument. The hypothesis of an evil demon is all you need to make the case for scepticism about an external world.

Just one question defeats all human 'knowledge'.

— If you are writing a book on philosophy it is almost inevitable that you are going to have to consider this — the precise moment when (it is said) the history of 'modern philosophy' begins...

 

Courtney asked, 'A man named Morpheus approaches you on the street and tells you that the world is not real. Specifically, he makes the claim that you are plugged into a machine, and the world that you believe to be real is nothing but a computer simulation. He then challenges you to prove him wrong. With reference to Descartes, make an argument that either agrees or disagrees with his position. After establishing your Descartes based position on the external world, argue against the opposite one. Make sure not to take any red or blue pills until you do!'

 

This is a typical philosophy instructor's question. The last sentence suggests female rather than male. I can't say exactly why it does, it just does. I have a roughly equal number of students of both sexes and over time have learned to 'hear' a voice in the text of email messages sent to me.

However, that's still just guessing, even if it is informed guessing. I'm not being responsible in making that assertion. The truth is, I don't know and it would be wrong to say 'I knew' even if by luck my guess turned out to be correct.

In the 'First Meditation', where Descartes considers the possibility that he is being deceived by an all-powerful evil demon, the fear is that exercising one's judgement responsibly is no more likely to arrive at the truth than guessing. The doubt only ends when Descartes succeeds in convincing himself in the Third Meditation that God exists and is not a deceiver. God wouldn't give me ample evidence for the existence of an external world when no such world exists.

That doesn't mean we can't make false judgements. The best we can do, in the face of the possibility of error is to remind ourselves that we have made errors in the past and keep our eyes open for new evidence that overturns what we previously believed. That's part of what it means to exercise one's judgement responsibly.

In The 'Sixth Meditation', Descartes goes further and explains in considerable detail how it is that illusions and misperceptions arise. Our perceptual powers such as sight and hearing, our ability to sense when we have suffered an injury, depend on physical processes which God has designed to lead us to truth. But even the best, most optimal design doesn't guarantee that we will always attain the truth. The very same laws of nature which lead us to knowledge can also lead us into error.

So what would Descartes say about the Matrix scenario? It is possible. It could happen in reality — for example, if we grant the hypothesis that human beings will one day create artificial intelligence.

Descartes would disagree with that particular claim. He believed that intelligence requires a non-physical soul. Non-human animals are just machines, he thought, like the twittering clockwork birds in cages that amused the seventeenth century idle rich. However, that detail is easy enough to fix. We can change the Matrix story to one where an evil angel, with finite not infinite powers, puts us asleep and makes us dream of a world of the 21st century.

Would God allow this? Why not? There are evil angels (Satan and his host) whom God could destroy if He wanted to. The point is that, in this scenario we are still physical objects existing in space. Even though we are deceived, there remains the possibility of discovering the deception. That's what Neo does in the Matrix when he concludes (rightly, as we the audience know) that after he wakes up in a pod with tubes attached to his back, this is his first taste of reality, and not just the beginning of a science fiction nightmare.

So in answer to the instructor's question, nothing Descartes says in the Meditations proves that Morpheus is wrong.

— I'm going to take a bit of a jump now.

I have a confession to make. Like Neo in The Matrix, I feel there is 'something wrong with the world'. Something tells me that this isn't real. I don't mean that I am not awake, at my desk, writing these words. I've no doubts about that. I mean something deeper, not just 'more of the same' — which is all you discover if you take the red pill.

Hegel thought about this. In one of the most vexing chapters in his Phenomenology of Mind, he turns the tables on every attempt at drawing a distinction between 'the apparent world' and 'the real world' — a project which traces back to the earliest Greek Philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. The final, most sophisticated version of this story is Kant's distinction between the familiar world of appearances and 'things in themselves' — the unknowable ultimate reality, or 'noumenal world'.

The chapter in question is entitled, cryptically, 'The Inverted World'.

Why an 'inverted world'? Hegel is considering the tempting idea of a reality behind the world of appearances. This other world is 'different', indeed radically different. The extravagant idea that everything in the other world is the 'inversion' of what it is in this world is meant to be a metaphor. Scientific inquiry concerns this world, the world of appearances. That's the basis on which all scientific theories are devised. Yet there must be something more, Kant believed, than just the world of appearances — ultimate reality, which human beings can never know or comprehend.

Now you can say, with Wittgenstein, that 'a nothing will serve as well as a something about which nothing can be said'. But Hegel goes further, and that's what makes this passage so brilliant. He gets right into the brain of someone who believes — wants there to be — something more. Yet all we know about this something is its sheer 'difference'. The inverted world is opposite to all we know, or could possibly know. What does that mean? Nothing, says Hegel! We are deceiving ourselves with a picture (as Wittgenstein would have remarked).

Let 'white' in this world be 'black' in the other world. Let 'round' be 'square'. Or make shapes into colours and colours into shapes. Make everything in the inverted world as different as it is possible to be from our world. What do you have? Just more of the same. All you have done is duplicate the world you know, like a photographic negative (Hegel would have said, if photography had been invented in his day).

In the 20th century, arguably the two seminal philosophical texts in Metaphysics are Martin Heidegger's Being and Time and A.N. Whitehead's Process and Reality — both owing a tremendous debt to Hegel. Right at the beginning of their respective works, these philosophers nail their colours to the mast.

According to Heidegger, what philosophy seeks to reveal is (as I would put it) the wood we fail to see for the trees, the real, 'ontological' structure of appearances. It is there for us to see, not hidden in some nether world. However, to see it requires a novel kind of procedure of intepreting or analysing the 'phenomena' which Heidegger developed from the ideas of his teacher Husserl.

According to Whitehead, the task of the philosopher is to 'frame the best set of categories that we can', categories which apply to the world of our experience. These categories, or concepts, are above the laws of physics because they depend on only the most general features of any possible experience. In Whitehead's memorable metaphor, we do not notice the elephant that is always present.

— There's an elephant in the room!

It could be a Heideggerian elephant or a Whiteheadian elephant. But I suspect that it is neither.

I imagine the elephant is sitting right next to me. Staring at me. Chuckling silently as I scramble through every possible logical explanation for this experience, this world...

Logic isn't enough...

 

 

 


How much intelligence does a philosopher need?

 

In the last chapter, I covered the history of metaphysics from Descartes to the twentieth century in less than 1500 words. I have leapt over giant gaps. Some of these we will be coming back to — like the elephant in the room.

(What was that all about? )

Maybe you are beginning to wonder (as I've asked myself many times from my earliest student days) whether your brain is up to this. Have you got what it takes?

If the reader has got this far, then the answer is almost certainly, Yes. But if you're like me, then you got here by reading the words but not necessarily always following the drift of the argument!

That's true of just about every philosophy book I have ever read. So don't worry. It isn't necessary to follow every step. Here are some useful tips:

Make guesses, then see if they are proved right. (It's a lot like making an experiment to test a hypothesis.)

Spend time with anything that looks like a question and see what answer you would give before moving on. (Generally, when I ask a question I mean it as a question to think about, I am not just being rhetorical.)

If you are feeling a bit adventurous, read the last chapter first and work backwards. Or pick a place at random and read one page and try to work out the rest of the book from that. You'll be surprised just how much you can learn using that method.

These are just tips and tricks that one can use regardless of one's prior knowledge or native ability. (Smarter readers are more likely to hop about, read books backwards, because they have the confidence, but the technique works for anyone.)

So how much intelligence do you need — for philosophy?...

 

Dirty Harry once said, 'A man's got to know his limitations.' Good advice, but so hard to live by. We philosophers don't know our own limitations. We are constantly breaking our heads — and our hearts — on the rock face of irrational, brute facts; a world recalcitrant to reason; blind, unfeeling, reality. It kicks you in the face every time. Do you feel lucky, punk?

And there's me, delicately, humorously poised between two realities, the capitalist money machine and the silver world of Plato's dream. Like Nietzsche's tightrope walker, eyes tightly shut, I can feel the ground rushing to meet me even though I remain immobile. Or wobbling, a little, just enough to thrill the spectators below.

Academic philosophers are, by and large, more stupid than most. Every ounce of common sense is knocked out of you in your first year as a philosophy undergraduate, and its down-hill all the way from there onwards.

Glad I escaped the academic hot house when I did. Too bad, though, that it was after I lost all my common sense and not before. I don't know, I can't remember, what it's like to walk on solid ground. I'm so used to looking at things upside down that I've forgotten which way is up.

 

...Philosophers like to please the crowd, for all their pretended disdain. They don't mind being laughed at because they think that they have the last laugh. As Plato taught, philosophers know while everyone else only believes. But they're wrong. The last laugh is on them. Because there's nothing to know that's worth a damn if it doesn't make a difference in this world. And in this world, more or less reliable belief is all you need.

There's more than one kind of 'intelligence'.

What philosophers crave is in fact the last thing they need: the ability to calculate, analyse, brute ratiocinative power. That's sheer brain poison. Getting high on mental speed.

No, what makes a good philosopher is not brute force analytical ability but judgement, which includes above all else the ability to judge when enough is enough, to know when to stop. And vision, the ability to see where you're going, to grasp the whole, to see the wood, not just the trees.

I'm thinking of someone making the first tentative steps towards philosophy, curious, wanting to know more, but fearful that one's brain might not be muscular enough to cope with the mental strain.

It would be easy to say that stupidity is an asset — which it can be, for example, when you're too stupid to see the 'solution' which everyone else accepts, not realizing that it isn't a solution at all, too stupid to accept 'truths' which are 'self-evident' to everyone else — easy, but sophistical.

I'm not saying that. That kind of stupidity isn't really stupidity but more like contrariness, bloody mindedness, ultimately, intellectual courage. There's no argument about that. But intellectual courage is something that can be acquired over time rather than a brute natural asset which you are either born with or not.

This is about human intelligence, as such. What you're born with. Researchers are only beginning to get to grips with the varied powers of the human mind. First, there were 'IQ tests'. Then tests were devised for 'visual ability', 'linguistic ability', 'creativity'. But that's only scratching the surface of a deep, complex, mysterious phenomenon. I'm not denying that empirical correlations can be drawn between results of the various tests devised and success in the 'real world'. But merely measuring correlations is not understanding.

And now there is 'left brain' and 'right brain' ability. I read somewhere that geniuses have the rare ability to use both sides of their brains at once. Most of us ordinary mortals flounder between attempting to think things through, or letting go of reason and going with what we intuitively feel. (Pirsig's 'Classic and Romantic split', remember that?). According to a report I read, researchers have tested various devices, like headphones that make funny squeaking noises in your ear, or even weird kinds of sunglasses, that are supposed to 'wake up' the two halves of your brain so that they can work at full capacity.

I guess it will take a while for the boffins to iron out all the bugs. Meanwhile, here's an alternative suggestion: when you do philosophy, it wakes up both sides of your brain because that's just what philosophy requires. Don't buy some stupid piece of apparatus. Take a philosophy course!

 

 

 


Vanity of vanities

 

Roberto asked, 'How does one deal with the possible idea that things hold little to no meaning? How does one deal with that in an intellectual sense, when meditation, reflection and books only further emphasize these concepts and deter one's motivation and persistency? When reading philosophy offers no real satisfaction because the more one reads the more one realizes there are worlds of questions without answers, that the only thing to be certain about is that nothing is certain, that the successful man awaits the same fate as the bum?'

I am not religious and disbelieve the idea of God as described in the Bible. With that in mind, the Book of Ecclesiastes sums up the basic ideas behind these questions.

 

...I like Roberto's question, because it makes a nice variant on the 'What is the Meaning of Life?' theme. However, I can't accept the premiss. I looked at the Book of Ecclesiastes (King James version) and couldn't even find a verse worth quoting. To my eye, it is mere rhetoric masquerading as profundity. If the volume didn't have BIBLE printed on the front in big letters you would even give it a second thought.

It amazes me that ministers of religion still exercise such a powerful grip on the hearts and minds of the faithful. Notwithstanding the slaughter, the burnings and the stonings, the bodies of innocents piled high. — Or maybe because? Human instinct is deeply tribal. Religion offers the perfect formula for someone to hate — the atheist or infidel, the apostate, the heretic, the high priests of Baal.

There is a time for argument and a time for diatribe, a time for reflection and a time for action, a time to nourish the intellect and a time to put down your books and defend free inquiry with all the weapons at your disposal. I say the time for action is now.

Find a copy of the Book of Ecclesiastes and burn it. If you don't have a Bible, print off a copy of Ecclesiastes from the internet and use that. You will feel better afterwards.

(Oops, I said I wasn't going in for irony...)

Looking at the verses of Ecclesiastes with the eye of a philosopher, the only question for me is, What are these words trying to prove? Where's the argument? 'There is nothing new under the sun. All your efforts will come to naught in the end. Only God and the promise of eternal salvation can give a valid reason for existing.'

— First you administer the poison. Then you offer your quack remedy.

I would give qualified agreement to the oft-quoted statement, 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.' Vanity is all around. No doubt about that. But that homely observation doesn't justify the conclusion, All is vanity. It comes close, close enough so you'd hardly notice the difference — unless you had a mind tuned to notice small differences in meaning and what a big deal they make.

Looking at my profession — because it's something I know — I see professors labouring on the endless publication treadmill, obscure 50-somethings nourishing the hope that they still have time to make a name for themselves among their peers. Then there are those who have made it, the ones with smiling faces and hairdos on the backs of books in Waterstones and honorary degrees from this or that university.

And what then? The same fate awaits the celebrated philosopher as awaits the bum.

Come to think of it, who says a bum can't be a philosopher? I lived for 13 years on social security benefits. Did that make me a bum? As if I were somehow better now, more fit for polite society because I am able to earn a living from what I do. Over the years, I have become deaf to words of praise or criticism — of my life or my philosophy.

I see problems, more problems than there could ever be solutions for. For that I'm grateful, but that's not the point. It's not as if things would be OK and dandy provided one doesn't run out of problems. Wittgenstein once said something about Russell to that effect — Russell had painted himself into a corner because he 'couldn't see any more problems', his philosophy solved them all. (This is the same Wittgenstein who in his youth thought he'd demolished the problems of philosophy in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. How vain is that!)

I like the purity of logic, but I've never made the mistake of thinking that logic and philosophy are one and the same. Philosophy is a passion. That might sound contradictory to anyone who thinks of the philosopher as the paradigm of the rational way of life. What good is logic when you're faced with a Fatwah?

This is a defence of free inquiry. More, I'm stating that inquiry can set you free — when pursued honestly, relentlessly, if necessary recklessly.

'Why do you exist? What meaning does life have for you?' I would start off by pointing out something blindingly obvious: I exist. That is a breathtaking, awe-inspiring proposition, by comparison with which any other piece of so-called knowledge is merely humdrum. My existence isn't something requiring explanation, let alone justification. It is the beginning and end... of everything. (In this respect, there's nothing I can add to Max Stirner's stirring prose in The Ego and His Own.)

This isn't an argument for egoism, or any particular philosophy. Realize that it is not an accident that you are here. I'm not talking about fate, or destiny — there is no fate or destiny that escapes the humdrum, the mundane. As if one could substitute some mere tale or story for the awe-inspiring fact of one's existence.

I said this before. 'There's nothing new under the sun' is the way depressed people feel. Depression isn't an argument. It isn't an insight into the ultimate nature of reality. It is what it is: a symptom of psychological unease or illness, a suitable case for Prozac.

I know that I cannot die. I know this, for the same reason that Marcus Aurelius knew it: you can't lose what you don't have. The past is gone, water under the bridge, and the future does not yet exist.

Consider for a moment the statement, 'Nothing in this world has any real meaning'. I said this is one of those statements which has a flip side. When you see this, you will see how empty, insipid, unfrightening the statement is. The flip side is, 'Everything in this world is full of meaning'. The leaf that just fell past my window, the sound of my Macintosh computer, the sweet taste of cola on my tongue, the fact that I am here, now, writing these very words.

Why I am here: I don't need to give any explanation or justification. I've already said. But, as it happens, for reasons which are not entirely clear to me, I find certain questions gripping. I don't think, 'This question is too big for me, or anyone.' I exist, therefore I am the measure of any question.

I am the Inquirer, looking down on the world of questions and more questions.

I don't recommend my way of life to everyone. But if you just take a few moments to consider what, if anything, moves you, then the answer will come of its own accord. — And if it doesn't, there's always Prozac.

 

 

 


Everyday life

 

'The problem with you philosophers is that your heads are so far up in the clouds you don't know anything about everyday life.' — Is that true? I knew once. Have I allowed myself to forget?

It's a question I need to answer, if only for my own satisfaction.

I was born and I shall die. Those are known facts. And yet, they are not facts that one reckons with day to day. They are interruptions in the normal, everyday course of events. I was too busy being born to celebrate the actual day of my birth. I can only celebrate my birthday. Others will mourn my passing as I cannot.

Everyday life covers the indeterminate time in between birth and death, a time that has no apparent limit or boundary for those living it, a space that is not a space 'inside' or 'outside' — say, inside the universe of matter in motion, or outside the brain or consciousness.

While we are alive, everyday life is simply — everything.

Everyday life is the very measure of existence and value. It is complete in itself. Everyday life knows nothing of an 'ultimate' level of existence, whatever that term may convey. There is no need of it. So far as everyday life is concerned, 'metaphysics' — the word philosophers use for the theory of ultimate reality — is empty of meaning.

Everyday life has a shape. It has a form that is not hidden but manifest. 'A day in the life' is much like any other day. (Exceptions prove the rule.)

A day begins and ends. Everyday life is marked by repetition and familiarity, not just the succession of days and nights but the innumerable repetitions that take place within any one day — one wakes up, gets out of bed, washes, eats breakfast, and so on.

Breathing is repetition. So is walking, or jogging, or climbing the stairs. Or writing.

The heart beats, mostly unnoticed except at times of physical or mental stress. In a conversation, familiar words and phrases are repeated over and over. We see people that we recognize, do many of the same things we did yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. Our actions, often more skillful that we realize, are well-practised. We have done them innumerable times.

These repetitions, large and small, noticed or unnoticed, make up the tempo of everyday life, its 'beat'. You don't need a clock to mark the passage of time. We are, indeed, aware of time 'passing'. This awareness can be uncomfortable or even painful — for example, when we are bored — or filled with anxiety, when we are apprehensive about some future event. The event approaches, ever more closely, then it is here, happening now — and then, finally, thankfully, it has passed into memory.

Fearful apprehension or excited anticipation, the comfort of the familiar or the shock of the new, lustful enjoyment, peace and contentment — or unease, discomfort, pain — are all familiar parts of everyday life.

We search out what pleasures there are to be had. We try to avoid pain. As to what causes us to feel pleasure or pain, we struggle to understand. Why is sweet pleasant? The fact is, we are moved. Something inside us makes us 'go'. We accept that as a fact. For example, the desire to consume this sugary treat. Or to put this part of my body into that part of another person's body. Or the guilty pleasure at another human being's suffering.

We accept ourselves as given facts simply because we are here, and that is a fact. I exist. You exist. And yet that sheer difference in itself — the difference between 'I' and 'you' — is an aspect of human life that traditional philosophy has barely touched upon.

Very early on in our lives, we learn that the thing we have been taught to call 'I' is just one of 'those', an object moving through space, a 'human being', a living creature that has the capacity to answer when you speak to it, a subject moved by its desires. In short, we learn to see ourselves as others see us — 'know thyself,' as the Greeks understood this. To philosophize about the self requires a tremendous effort of unlearning. We see nothing unusual when we look into ourselves, for we do not expect to see anything that we were not taught to see.

We are unconscious of our own unique existence.

Speaking for myself, I don't really understand what life is. I don't know what it means that I am alive. I know that I am but I don't know what I am. None of the answers from traditional philosophy satisfies. Even if there were a reason for 'all this' — the world, human life, and everything that goes with it — there would still be no reason for I.

Either I am, fully, my own reason, or I am here without a reason, a sheer contingency, an accident of being.

Yet everyday life teaches that there are no sheer accidents. Every event has a cause. Human beings have always known this, even if they sometimes fancied 'causes' that did not actually exist. To conceive of the very notion of 'sheer accident' as distinct from an unknown cause requires a level of mental sophistication. The cause is typically the thing that you fix, or the person that you blame or punish.

Should I 'blame' my parents for my existence? What about their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents? I am here as a fact, a stupefyingly improbable fact, yet whose improbability one rarely has reason to dwell upon.

I exist, and the time is now. The time is always now. A short time ago, I wrote those words, and I am now writing these words. But why, out of all the times that might have been, is it now? There is no reason at all, there can be no reason, except to say that the moment before was the moment before, and not a different time. Today is Monday because yesterday was Sunday.

Why do the sheer contingencies of I and now go unnoticed in everyday life? There would be no purpose in noticing or remarking upon a fact that cannot be other than it is. For example, I cannot make it the case that yesterday was some day other than Sunday. (I can call Sunday anything I like, but it won't alter the fact that the time was, or is, the time that it was or is.)

And yet, there is a sense in which we are fully aware of what it means for the time to be now. The time comes for action, and that time is now. Pull the cord, press the button. Say what is on your mind or forever hold your tongue. There is no time for discussion or debate. It is now or never.

Urgency is the defining attribute of now.

It is with a certain sense of urgency that I am writing this. Decades have passed when I seem to have learned almost nothing, my ideas have hardly altered. And yet, innumerable conversations and dialogues with my students seem to have had a cumulative effect. Repetition. I am subtly changed.

Ever so slowly, barely noticeably, light begins to dawn. Like the passage from night time to early morning, I see something that I did not see before. — If I wait until the sun is fully out, it may be too late.

 

 

 


The world as a puzzle

 

Somewhere, buried amongst my essays and notes from years past, I remember writing about, 'a locked door, a hidden key.' As I recall, I was canvassing different ideas about the task or the goal of philosophical inquiry, prepared to consider any possibility.

Pounding on a locked door. I 'get' the image. It captures the sense of frustration. Without the key you are forever locked out. You have no chance, none whatsoever. You are wasting your energy and your time.

And your life. — 'An idiotic conundrum has you fooled.'

The difficulty with the locked door image is that it implies something that is not the case. It implies that I am actually at the door, or, at least, that I know where the door is. Whereas the truth (so far as I am able to tell, and assuming that I am not a victim of some cunning deception) is that there is no door. Or none that I can find. I might as well pound the floor or the wall.

Or my bare chest.

The point is nicely captured in Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. First, you need to know the question. Well, here's a possible question, whose answer would be '42'. (For those not familiar with the work of Douglas Adams, it's the answer to the question about 'the meaning of the universe, life and everything' offered by the alien supercomputer Deep Thought after pondering for millions of years.)

The question is this:

'What is the average age of a human being considering the question of 'the meaning of the universe, life and everything'?'

The answer is — around about 42.

The point being, 'You're gonna die!' You are right bang in the middle of your life. Your life expectancy is the same as the number of years you have already lived.

Make the best of the time you have left — or don't. It makes no difference.

The ultimate question, the question of the universe, life and everything is, and has always been, about death and nothing but death.

I can't be sure. Who knows what Douglas Adams had in mind, if he was thinking of anything particular? Unlike Deep Thought, I don't have 'the answer'.

I suspect that the same is true of the universe. We are alone. There are some things that can't be repeated. This human world is the only world, and when we are gone there will be nothing. Pure absence of being. We are already half-way towards non-existence...

What comes to mind when you think of a puzzle?

Maybe, a jig-saw puzzle, or a crossword puzzle. If the world is a jig-saw puzzle, then we have the separate pieces, we just don't know how they fit together. If the world is a crossword puzzle, then are gaps (the missing letters) that can only be filled if we solve the clues.

Either way, there's something that counts as 'solving the puzzle'.

But what if the 'jig-saw pieces' don't fit? what if the clues have no solution (or many solutions)? Maybe the puzzle is a lot more complicated than we first realized, but that doesn't necessarily rule out a solution. The puzzle is harder to solve, that's all. There is no point at which one could say, with sufficient justification, that the puzzle is insoluble. Because how could you possibly know?

It's a 'Rumsfeld', an unknown unknown.

— Does that help or not?

This is as much about 'the one asking the question,' trying to understand what drives a person to ask the question (whatever the question) in the first place. (Maybe the world won't be changed but I will.)

Or maybe this is about what distinguishes the 'genuine seeker' from the 'the unconscious ones', human beings who have not yet grasped the significance of their unique existence? Unique or not, there's an awful lot of them around.

Why are human beings so unconscious? Why do they accept the appearance of 'I' and a 'world' so easily, without even putting up a struggle? Don't they see the problem?

However, now I'm getting ahead of myself. Maybe I'm the fool (and persons like me). This is my 'idiotic conundrum'. The so-called 'unconscious ones' are actually people who have their feet firmly on terra firma, who have successfully eluded the siren call of philosophy.

Well, what is it that I want?

I'm clearly exhibiting the behaviour of someone who is after something, but what? I could give a long list of the things that, supposing I had them, would still not satisfy me. There is nothing in this world worth wanting. Nothing I can find, nothing the world can give...

...except knowledge. I want to know. If the news is bad, I want to know the worst. ('When all is rotten it is a man's work to cry stinking fish.' — F.H. Bradley.)

Could it be bad? Could it be all bad?

The crux of religion is the determination to believe, despite all the evidence, that somehow Goodness (with a capital 'G') is ultimately responsible for — everything.

There are no inexplicable contingencies. Everything is explained by Goodness. Everything is ultimately for the best. It's as simple as that.

It was Goodness that made the world, and Goodness that let die 190 innocent victims in Paris on November 15th 2015. (The problem of evil is easy to solve if you assume that 'all good people go to heaven'. Then getting machine gunned is a blessing, because you get to heaven sooner.)

I say, 'Believe what you like, it makes no difference.'

Practice believing in 'six impossible things before breakfast'. If you find that too difficult, start with one and work up. You'll get there, eventually.

I don't have to think about you, you unconscious ones. I don't have to worry my over-taxed brain. There's nothing I can do for you. You can't be helped. You can't be saved. Go away!

I can't be 'saved' either. But then I don't want to be. I just want to know...

 

 

 


God on whose side?

 

Today, there's a wooden board up in front of my attic window. I don't want to know what the weather is like. My darkening mood is enough to cope with. Day or night, it makes no difference. There's no light in here, behind these thick glass lenses.

Best not to think, then. Just write.

On the day of the Paris shootings, I wrote 'God is dead' in Arabic on my 'Glass House Philosopher' blog. The actual Arabic script, not transliterated. If I was living in Saudi Arabia, I would be imprisoned and flogged...

 

That's the thing about war. You have to be on one side, or the other. For the Crusaders, or against. A particular irony for a son of Jewish parents. As a Jew, I haven't forgotten history. I haven't forgotten the killings, the persecution, the repression, the pogroms — the Inquisition. Christians don't just have blood on their hands, the blood is right up to their armpits.

Pity, then, the poor, doomed inhabitants of Jericho, whom God declared suitable for extermination so that His people could have somewhere to live?

No doubt, as some of the pilots get into their jet planes, they will murmur a prayer, maybe nibble a sacred biscuit proffered by the chaplain or stroke their tefillin. While others will touch their lucky tiger tooth or rabbit's foot.

Robert Zimmerman said it best, in his song, 'With God On Our Side'.

'You're the one who has to decide — whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.'

...There are some things you should only try once. Write a novel. Make a world. Yes, the world was made. God made it and when He saw what He had done He committed suicide. Now we only have one another. — The story I've just told is as worthy of belief as any other story. There would be a lot less killing if we realized that we are all we have.

(Remembering one of my all-time favourite movies: 'Jack knew the truth about himself: he was a one-book writer, a one-time winner who had quit while he was ahead.' Croupier, 1998. Yes, I could be Jack. But what if I don't want this to end? I mean, the work, the writing.)

Despite everything, I enjoy my solitude. These are my thoughts and words, my life, my world. I am offering the reader the chance to peek in. Have a good look round then leave me alone. I huddle with no man — or woman.

Maybe I am God?

I've considered that possibility.

Why not? Do you know that you are not God? How do you know? Maybe you and I both are. If you were God, would it be that difficult to keep the information from yourself? Even Christ on the cross allowed himself to forget that he was God, when he called out...

Or I could become a God, in gradual stages. Upload my brain program onto disk, and work and re-work the source code. Improve myself, so to speak, in endless future time. Or at least until the universe comes to an end. The 'perfectibility of man', ha ha.

If an experiment is 'a question put to nature,' then this would count as an experiment. To produce some words, and see what effect they have. On others. On myself. Out of curiosity. But not idle. It would be too much trouble if it were just for my own amusement. The point is, unlike a physics or chemistry experiment, you don't need to do it twice.

Maybe every person should do it once, or at least those who have the appetite for self-knowledge. Maybe this could be a way to do philosophy.

It could work. So long as I don't fall into the temptation of romanticizing the search, making more of the subject for the sake of the 'story'. The thrill is in the forensic challenge of untangling the detail, seeing through to something that is hidden.

Will it be true? the whole truth?

The best way to lie successfully is to convince, or half-convince, yourself first. That's how domestic murderers sobbing crocodile tears at police press conferences do it. 'Please find the brute who killed our poor Jimmy.'

The intricate labyrinth of self-deception. Even though it was you who made it, you can still get lost in it. If I am deceiving myself, then logic will find out the truth. The truth will come out. Here. Won't it?

A memory fragment: One of my teachers at infant school telling my parents — I'm guessing after some unfortunate incident — that I 'tended to lean on other children and they tended to fall over'.

Was it my mother or father who gave me this valuable nugget of information (many years later)? I don't remember. Yet my abiding recollection is more of being bullied, than of being a bully. There was a period when I bullied my younger sister, cruelly. Sorry, E. No hard feelings?

Then there was that lad at school whose face reminded me of someone with Down's Syndrome. I told him so, straight. (Thinking to myself with a thrill, 'This is what bullies do!')

The question to ask is why I thought of this, precisely now. Why was it necessary? This is a clue, because I'm looking at a fundamental constant in my life. It's to do with power and control. I can be over others, but no-one can be over me. Not ever. I don't need others to be over, that's not how I get my kicks. I'd rather just be by myself, no-one above me or below...

Father, you bullied me. You were a bully. There, I've said it. You didn't mean to be a bully. I listened to all your stories about your hang-ups and the things your father did to you. Your generation endured a lot. You tried to be a good father, but you could only be you.

Now I am the author of my own existence. My life is mine.

Back to the topic of chemistry.

My first girlfriend — illegal girlfriend, in just about every civilized county in the world — dumped me on her parent's orders. Because, as they said, I was 'conducting an experiment with her'. I wonder whether they were right. I was pretty cut up about it at the time.

Do I experiment with people? Given the job I do, or did, it would be very easy to raise a suspicion. A close friend and colleague admitted that what I did seemed to her 'rather egotistical'.

I like the image of the mad scientist. It excuses a lot.

 

 

 


Grey Owl

 

Before philosophy, there was photography. The very first time I recall the topic of philosophy ever coming up was when my boss Chard Jenkins told me that, with my bushy beard and black-rimmed specs, 'You could be a philosopher.' I looked just the part.

I was being given a lift home in Chard's posh white Mercedes. I don't remember how we had gotten onto the topic, but we'd been having a friendly argument over the existence of God, me arguing rather dogmatically that it made no sense to be agnostic about something there is no evidence for. Then Chard came right out with his comment, just like that.

Chard Jenkins was an advertising photographer based in a narrow mews — originally, 18th century stables — just behind Oxford Street. I'd found his studio in the Madison Avenue Handbook, working systematically through the alphabet from A as far as J. In those days, assistant photographer jobs were rarely advertised. You just had to be lucky when you phoned or called round.

Chard's main claim to fame was discovering George Lazenby, James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Chard spotted George working as a salesman in the Mercedes showroom just off Baker Street. He helped George get his first job as a male model and the rest is movie history.

George once came by to share the darkroom, long hair, dressed like a hippie. You had to see to believe. As I later discovered, his 35mm shots were from a movie he was making with a pacifist theme, Universal Soldier.

I wasn't that great as a photographer's assistant, a bit scatter-brained. My skills as a black and white printer were the main reason Chard hired me. I had the feel and the eye for it. That would have been at the beginning of 1971.

At my job interview, Chard had praised my 16x20 inch prints for their quality but commented that I seemed to be 'in love with the medium'. In other words so far as my talent as a photographer was concerned, the jury was still out. That was fine by him!

Some time after our car conversation, to my chagrin, Chard at the insistence of a friend took on a second assistant who'd agreed to work for free so that he could get the experience. It didn't last long...

 

In a memorable lunch time conversation Simon (let's call him that, I don't remember his name) told me that if I ever thought of going back to university, I must on no account do philosophy. It had been the most miserable three years of his life. This prompted me to investigate. With the certainty we only have when we are young, I knew that whatever Simon was, I was the opposite.

I discovered that philosophy and I were made for one another. It was a whirlwind romance. I revered Kant and idolized Plato. I went on endless philosophical walks. Instead of my beloved camera, I carried a notebook. In October 1972, I enrolled as an undergraduate at Birkbeck College London. From day one, I had set my heart on becoming an academic philosopher.

 

...Never mind how I went about 'investigating' philosophy. Maybe more on that another time. (How did I know what to look for? I asked for the Philosophy section in the local library. There was Plato next to Ron Hubbard. If I'd picked Ron's book my life might have taken an altogether different turn.)

However, this is the first time I've ever mentioned the bit about my 'looking like a philosopher'. It niggles.

In Chard Jenkins' world, looks were all-important. Models came in every day with their portfolios. Naturally, you had to be able to act the part. No matter how good looking you are, that's not enough if you're unable to deliver in a live shoot.

As it happens, in addition to my philosopher looks, I had the voice too, something else Chard might well have mentioned at some point. It was something I got complemented on.

Is it possible that one day all those years ago I looked at myself in a mirror, primped my beard and said to myself, 'Hmm, I could play that role.'

And what if I did?

I could have gone to an 'ugly models' agency. They'd have used me. That was something I remember Chard suggesting. There's always a steady demand for character models. But I didn't.

I remember a scene from Richard Attenborough's movie Grey Owl (1999). Chief Red Crow declares to Archie Grey Owl, 'Men become what they dream. — You have dreamed well.' This is the moment when we, the audience, realize that the cat is out of the bag. Surrounded by native Americans, Englishman Archibald Belaney, tan or no tan, is so obviously not what he claims to be. They exchange looks, then Red Crow and all the other chiefs break into raucous laughter. Archie Grey Owl is laughing too.

And yet it doesn't matter. Not for them. It doesn't take anything away from Archie's pioneering achievements in environmental conservation and defending the cause of native Americans.

In a previous scene, full of pathos, we got to see the bedroom in Archie's boyhood home in England, lined with books and memorabilia about native American life.

Archie became what, as a lad, he had always dreamed of being.

The truth when it came out did matter to the English and American audiences who'd read Archie's numerous articles and paid to see Archie's theatre shows — when they learned that they had been 'duped by an impostor'.

There is one important difference between my case and Archie's. You don't find out whether someone is a philosopher or not by examining their facial features, or taking a blood test and seeing if they have the right DNA. Philosophers are made, not born.

I could say, with perfect right, that I am the 'real' philosopher while philosophers so-called (the philosophers of the Academy) are the impostors. I could say this, but I choose not to. It's not something I would say. I don't bandy labels.

I still have the camera I used back then, a black Pentax Spotmatic — plus not a few others that I've gathered over the years. My interest in creative photography hasn't waned. I learned when I was at Chard's that, as with my first love, chemistry, I just didn't have the 'right stuff', the patience and meticulous attention to detail, to be someone who earned his living at it. Not to mention the photographer's full-on interpersonal skills — ability to charm clients, pacify over-demanding art directors, cajole models into giving their all.

I could only stand back and admire.

It was fun while it lasted. I got to hold a light meter up against a naked model's chest. I even met a few famous people, although I never took their autographs. (That was a missed opportunity.)

It would have been the perfect solution if I had been able to make a successful career as a photographer while pursuing my love of philosophy. Spinoza maintained his independence from the oppressive theocracy of the day by earning his living grinding lenses. Without that mental freedom, his Ethics would never have been written, and he would have remained a minor follower of Descartes whom history forgot.

Just to think, I could have been a lensman too. It wasn't to be. Tant pis!

 

 

 


Photography as metaphysics

 

When I was very young, long before I owned a camera, like kids do I used to love looking through coloured sweet wrappers and seeing the world all pink, or blue, or green. I would lie on my back at the top of the stairs with my legs stretching up against the wall, imagining that the ceiling was the floor and wondering what it would be like to live in a world where everything was upside down. I placed two facing mirrors in a shoe box, and squinted through a small hole scraped in the silver back of one of the mirrors at the darkening tunnel of reflections extending to infinity.

Mirrors have a special significance for the photographer. Lewis Carroll's 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' captures brilliantly the sense of mystery of the looking glass world that we can touch but never enter except in our dreams. If you are above a certain age, you will remember the fun and magic of the fairground hall of mirrors. That was before video games.

 

...A student of mine, Andrew Watson, invited me a few years back to give a talk on photography at George Watson's College Edinburgh where he taught in the Art Department. I illustrated my talk with work by the American photographers Charles Harbutt, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand — leaders of a 'new wave' in photography in the 60s that debunked ideas about 'good composition' or photographs as 'works of art'. This was photography for photography's sake.

'I don't take pictures, pictures take me,' I quoted from Charles Harbutt at the beginning of my talk. While Gary Winogrand observes laconically, 'I photograph to see what things look like photographed.'

Just stop to think about Gary Winogrand's statement for a moment. All the stuff about 'pre-visualization' of the final print that the old-guard art photographers talked about — Minor White, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, all ground-breakers in their day — is gone. You press the shutter not knowing exactly how things will turn out. It's an intentional action, not an accident. (In a documentary, Winogrand tells his students that 'I found it in the camera' is never acceptable. You have to see and make a decision to press the shutter.) But whether you have succeeded in your intention, you can never know for sure because everything happens too quickly.

Out on the street with your Nikon or Leica, you are making intuitive visual judgements from moment to moment. Click... You feel as if you might have caught something. But you don't know until you look at the contact sheets.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment' is like serving an ace in tennis. It's a percentage game. Each time you press the shutter you try to capture a decisive moment, and sometimes, occasionally, you succeed. The difference between Cartier-Bresson and any other photographer armed with a Leica was his impressive success rate — his photographer's eye.

(The record for sheer profligacy in using up film still goes to Winogrand, however, who at his death left thousands of 35mm film cassettes that he never had time to develop. Winogrand typically shot more rolls of film in a month than I have taken in my entire life.)

At the talk, I also showed two of my own photo sets, including one which caused the greatest perplexity — shot while walking down a main road at night with a cheap plastic flash camera loaded with fast black and white film — strange shapes looming out of the darkness, scaffolding, traffic cones, my right leg captured from eye level as I walked along, the reflection of the flash on venetian blinds in a shop window...

 

It is truistic that one tries to avoid visual clichés. I'm saying more than this. I am talking about a kind of photography whose primary purpose is to challenge our conventional ways of seeing. It follows that there cannot be such a thing as an 'easy' photograph, one whose point one grasps right away. A photograph is a mandala to meditate upon, a puzzle to solve (it might have multiple 'solutions'), an uncracked fragment of code.

You can draw a puzzle drawing or paint a puzzle painting, but you can only put onto the paper or canvas what was already in your mind, in your thoughts and feelings. The secret of photography is its recognition that the human mind is finite but reality is infinite. To engage in creative photography is to be involved in a pre-eminently mind-expanding activity.

It is hardly surprising that great photographs are hard to come by. The accidental and uncontrollable nature of lived reality is an unending source of original material. Yet — as I discovered long ago — for every gold nugget, there are tons of rubble to sift through and discard.

 

...'Now comes the difficult part,' I said...

 

I believe that there is some truth in every metaphysical system, which makes me the worst kind of 'eclectic'. Bradley has something to say about this. According to the eclectic, 'Every truth is so true that any truth must be false.' I agree. A vision by definition cannot be false. If you SEE it, then it must be true. A vision cannot be denied. But since metaphysical visions patently contradict one another, one either has to believe the truth of a contradiction or concede that nothing can be 'true'. I agree with that too.

What is true, is the all-pervasive lie that the very existence of metaphysics — or creative photography — exposes. Earlier, I referred to it blandly as our 'conventional ways of seeing'. We take the world for granted. It is so familiar to us, in fact, that one has great difficulty in grasping that we see the world AS anything at all. The world is just the world, what's so special about that?

The idea that relations are self-contradictory, or that the tree outside the window only exists in God's mind, or that we are all solitary monads, shatters this easy going commonsense view. Metaphysics poses the questions that one never thought to ask.

As does creative photography.

The same point can be put more simply and much more devastatingly: there is no world. All seeing is 'seeing as'.

A single photograph does not a treatise make. Nor is a portfolio of photographs equivalent to a finely crafted metaphysic. Yet each original image chips away at the foundations of your 'world' — while you hardly notice the ground crumbling beneath you.

 

...That is what I am after. In photography, as much as in philosophy. We are mentally imprisoned by conventional ways of seeing. The very words we use pre-sort things into pigeon holes before we even have time to think. All the effort spent in thinking is wasted if the outcome is already decided before you even begin.

When Orwell wrote in his novel 1984 about replacing English with stripped-down 'Newspeak', he wasn't just speculating about some future dystopia.

Is there truth in metaphysics? Or, as I suggested in my talk, are all metaphysical theories 'true' (and therefore equally 'false')? I don't know. I'll let you know when, if ever, I succeed in proving to my own satisfaction the truth of some particular metaphysical theory.

Maybe that's not the real task? Again, I don't know.

I can understand the Dadaist movement, as an attempt to break free from assumptions about what is or is not 'meaningful'. Could I be a closet Dadaist? I suspect that I am a touch too serious. The problem with Dadaists is that they see themselves as having fun, like children let out of school early, no parents or teachers around to criticize.

(I like to have fun as much as anyone. A student of mine who is an orthodox Rabbi, told me that he didn't understand the value placed on 'having fun'. Why is 'fun' supposed to be such a good thing? Why are people always so concerned to have fun? I couldn't give him a satisfactory answer.)

This isn't meant for fun. This is serious. But all the while, I am smiling.

 

 

 


Contagion

 

Maybe if I had been able to make a successful career as a professional photographer, I could have had more impact on the world of academic philosophy. I would have taken my time. The need to earn a living is what led to my becoming a 'philosopher outside the Academy' (as I've been called). I founded my philosophy school, Pathways to Philosophy, wrote the six book-length 'Pathways', and that became my living over the next two decades, my full-time-and-a-half job.

Ironic, that.

I'm not complaining.

Don't worry, I'm not going to retell the story of my life. The philosophy student who jumped the fence and became a sophist, or was it the other way around? I forget. Either way, it bores me. I've already said, there isn't a story to tell. What there is you can find on the Internet. It's all there in Google. I'd rather spend my time looking for pictures of funny cats.

Like David Hume, I look into myself and I see... nothing. Just bundles of ideas. No core, no solid substance. I know that I exist but I don't know what that means or what follows from that. I have a pathology (I am rediscovering some of that as I write, fascinating). Reminding myself of facts that are not pretty.

Thank goodness for that. It all comes home. My former selves and I.

I don't have a dark side, it's more a dirty beige. Like a faded T-shirt that's been in the wash too many times, impossible to tell what colour it was originally. Well, basically, there is only the one side when I come to think of it. Or maybe various shades of grey or beige. Who cares?

The only thing that really matters is the question. What it means to exist. The question excites me. It stimulates my appetite. It gives me wood.

The question is the key... to everything.

On the topic of religion, as you will have realized by now I'm a militant sceptic. The very notion of Belief with a capital 'B' offends me. True believers offend me by their very existence. I tolerate them because I have no choice — there's too damn many of them.

Like one of those zombie B-flicks when it gets to the point when you absolutely know that the number of zombies is multiplying out of all control. The situation is hopeless. You're completely surrounded. Zombies in the basement. Zombies in the attic. You can play target practice for a while, but you know you can't destroy them all. It's inevitable.

We're all going to die.

The aeroplane takes off in the nick of time, but there's a bitten air hostess on board hiding in the back toilet who is beginning to turn...

 

You cannot kill me

The creature said

Because I am already dead

I aimed my shotgun

At the creature's head

And pulled the trigger

A zombie kill

Is still

A kill

 

...Comes from playing too many computer games. Doom is my cup of tea. Doom 3. A relaxing way to spend an afternoon, evening, night, and on into the early hours. Then I have Doom dreams where I get even more practice with my chainsaw and shotgun...

 

The only star cruiser to escape from earth with the last surviving non-Repenters had a copy of the Repenter sacred text hidden on board, left behind in a locker by one of the cleaning staff. Twenty years later, as the cruiser was nearing its destination, the chief pilot who by that time had been forced to barricade himself on the bridge realized finally there was no hope and steered his ship into the sun.

 

...Contagion.

As I was saying, the vision I am trying to articulate isn't about belief. I'm not looking for anything to believe. It is perfectly possible to get by without belief, as the Greek philosopher Pyrrho and his followers showed. And yet there is something that I can see. Right there in the corner of my eye. Or at least I feel it. I feel it in my bones, my hair, my fingernails. With every breath, I breathe it in. Existence.

Existence exists. Ayn Rand said that. (But what did she mean by it? God knows. Her followers certainly didn't.) There is something. Something real. You can't get away from existence. Belief is just belief. All the stuff in your head or mine, is just pictures that we compare with... what? More pictures. Words map onto other words, ideas map onto other ideas. Only existence exists.

Or as the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides stated, in his lofty prose: 'It Is'. Nuff said. What is, is. What is not, is impossible and unthinkable.

I know that ninety-nine per cent of the people reading these pages just won't get it. Or not yet, at any rate. They don't feel anything in their fingernails, and never have. I'd like to show them all the fingernail clippings they've ever clipped, and where those scattered clippings are now — the atoms and molecules. They are all somewhere, spread about the world. Just to think about that fact blows your mind. Or it does mine.

Existence.

Burn them, pulverize them, dissolve them in acid, it makes absolutely no difference. Only in a computer game can things (demons you just killed, for example) simply evaporate into sheer nothingness. But suppose there is a way to make the atoms and molecules disappear. You can destroy physical stuff (convert matter to energy, say) but you can't destroy facts. You can forget them, bury them. But what is, is. What happened, happened.

— Well, maybe not.

Because if time is real, really real, then in a sense nothing apart from the present exists, and everything else including past 'facts' can disappear into nothingness so far as we are concerned because it would make absolutely no difference to anything real. (Academic philosophers have a name for this theory which I first learned from an essay one of my BA Philosophy students sent me: Presentism. Oh boy!)

But even then something still is. 'Time is really real', if true, is a true metaphysical statement about what is. You can't escape what is, you can only debate what what is is.

I call that, 'the elephant in the room'.

 

 

 


Elephant in the room

 

'Sometimes we see an elephant, and sometimes we do not. The result is that an elephant, when present, is noticed. Facility of observation depends on the fact that the object observed is important when present, and sometimes is absent.' — A.N. Whitehead Process and Reality, 'Speculative Philosophy'.

Reading Whitehead was one of the high points of my student life. Collaborator with Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica, Whitehead had a quite different take from Russell on the aims of philosophy, and what it is possible to discover by means of philosophical reason.

At one time, entire departments of philosophy (and theology) were devoted to Whitehead's philosophy. Some still are, probably, in out of the way places like the American midwest or Finland.

This is my hymn of praise to Whitehead...

 

There's an elephant in the room.

I feel the elephant's presence. I can smell it. I can hear its steady breathing. Then why can't I see it? Where is the elephant hiding? Under the table? No. In the closet? No. Under the floorboards? No.

I've looked everywhere and not found my elephant. And yet I absolutely know it is there, hiding somewhere.

Maybe the elephant is invisible? (And intangible.) Or a very tiny elephant that smells and sounds bigger than it is.

Where did I put my microscope?!

I am talking about THIS, what is actual. The actual is present to me, as it is present to every other conscious being in the universe. One way or another, it makes its presence felt. To be conscious of something is to be conscious of something actual, something that actually exists; an entity or thing, something that has the capacity to be seen or touched, or express its existence in some other way.

 

...What are the actual entities? What is it that ultimately accounts for everything real, all experience, all existence? That was Whitehead's question.

Something is actual. All this has to add up to something. It can't be nothing. There can be no question or doubt about that. The only question is what the actual, that 'something', is. — That statement isn't a statement of belief, it's an expression of an attitude. The metaphysical attitude, perhaps.

Labels aren't important, actual existence is.

Things are everywhere. For most persons, most of the time, things are all they know. This room, for example, is full of things. Things that I once bought. Things that were here when I first moved in. Things that clutter the place up, that I need to get rid of. Or things that are useful for this or that purpose, or if not useful, at least decorative. This isn't a thing. It is all things and none. Or, it is the essence of thing-hood, what a thing needs in order to be a thing. But what that is, I have no clear idea.

This is real. I am awake and not dreaming or hallucinating or fantasizing. But that's not what I mean. Even if I were dreaming, there would still be this, only I would temporarily (until I woke up) not be consciously experiencing it. Asleep or awake, the things around me, my body, are real. When I say, 'real', I am talking about reality. Reality is everywhere. Even fantasies and dreams are part of reality. Then what is reality? How do you define reality?

Once, not so long ago, philosophers felt the full force of that question. They set out boldly to define reality. The definition of reality — the theory of the real — is, or at least was, the essential task of metaphysics.

Cut to the bone, the task is simply and purely a task of description. We have to describe the elephant in the room that we cannot see but we all the time know is there. Then, maybe, we can go on to say interesting things about the elephant, explore its properties, develop theories about it.

Know, or believe? The other side of the coin is that the inchoate feeling that an elephant is there is the real topic. What is in question is the metaphysical attitude, the desire for something 'ultimate', something real, or 'really real', apart from the theories or inferences we make on the basis of experience. I feel the presence of the elephant but I could be wrong. What gives me that feeling? where does it come from? Might that not be the true task of philosophy?

To feel the presence of an elephant where there is no elephant is to suffer from an illusion. The drunk who sees pink elephants dancing on the bar table, for example. The drunk sees 'pink elephants' but no pink elephants are there. Do the elephants exist in his mind? Not necessarily. All we can say for sure is that some brain event has occurred that has caused the drunk to utter the sounds, 'I see pink elephants.' Beyond that, one is giving a theory (a theory of perception, as it's called).

If the elephant is metaphysical, the illusion would be termed a 'metaphysical illusion'. The illusion is that there are metaphysical facts to uncover when in reality there are no such metaphysical facts. There are just plain facts. And things.

Or could it be that the occurrence of metaphysical illusion is itself some kind of metaphysical fact?

I don't know whether there is an elephant in the room or no elephant. I know only that I begin with nothing, or nothing concrete at any rate. I can't say that I begin with 'myself' or 'my existence' because I don't know who or what I am. I cannot say that I begin with a 'question', because every assumption is up for grabs, including the assumption that the question I want to ask is a meaningful question.

— On second thoughts, what I just said is not correct. I don't begin with pure nothing. I begin with an inchoate feeling, whose real meaning has yet to be uncovered. The feeling in my fingernails. The thing I see, or imagine I see, in the corner of my eye. Sense or nonsense, that is surely a 'something'?

 

 

 


What is existence?

 

Outside my window, it is sunny today. I can hear dogs barking and the cries of children playing in the park. The wind is in the trees. I can see the leaves rippling when I look out, or in my mind's eye. Primary colours, green on blue.

These things exist. What I have said is true.

What exactly is the difference between existence and truth? Existence refers to things, truth refers to things said. Maybe that's an important difference, or maybe not.

Let's start with existence.

The sun exists. The barking dogs and laughing children and swaying trees all exist. Existence is what all things have in common. The least thing you can say about a thing is that it is, that it exists. I am talking of course of actual things — but now I'm just repeating myself. To be actual is simply to be.

However, something very important has been left out. Sun, dogs, children and trees are all related to one another, as I am related to each of them. We are all in physical space. If all that was actual was the sum total of things in space then it wouldn't make any difference how those things were arranged. They could all be just piled on top of one another — which obviously they are not. Space, or spatial relation, is as real as the things in space.

Things in space — that looks like a plausible definition of reality.

But is space real? how do you know?

Look out of the window. Look at the sun, the sky, the trees. You are having an experience. And the experience is real. This is not a dream or a hallucination. The experience you now having is the very measure of what it is for something to be actual. It's real, and you know that it's real.

Good. You are most definitely awake. Your senses are functioning normally. However, the point is this. The fact that something actually exists, that it is real and not imaginary, is a relational fact. Everything spatially related to this is real — by definition.

Let's say that, contrary to every expectation, the next moment you undergo the experience of 'waking up'. Suddenly, it is dark, you are lying in your bed. Rubbing your eyes, you realize that all that came before must have been a vivid dream. Either that, or your seeming to 'wake up' is a dream. It's got to be one or the other.

You know what it would mean to undergo such an experience, unlikely as it may seem. It would mean that something that you thought was real, is not real. That happens, in small ways, when our senses are deceived, when we imagine we see or hear things which aren't really there.

It rarely happens in big ways, the way Descartes described with his evil demon, but one imagines that it could. The point to make against scepticism is that our right to be sure, to say we know, isn't undermined just because we can 'imagine' how things might be different from what we take them to be. I can imagine a werewolf lurking outside my study door, but that doesn't mean that I think there is any chance of there being a werewolf outside my study door.

(Why not? Wittgenstein had a great reply to the question, 'Aren't you shutting your eyes to doubt?' — 'They are shut,' he says. They'd better be!)

To be sane is to have a strong sense of what is real. Some may be more skilled than others, but we all — all of us who are sane — are able to discriminate experiences more or less effortlessly in the way I've described. We relate experiences to one another. The fact that an object of experience actually exists is a relational fact.

Who makes this judgement? It is a judgement anyone can make. If I am asleep, and don't realize that I am sleeping, then maybe I am not in a position to 'ask a question' or 'make a judgement'. However, the question what is, or is not real, or what does or does not actually exist isn't up to me alone to decide. It suffices that any time that question is meaningfully raised, by anyone, in any context, the answer consists in relating the thing in question to other supposedly 'actual' things.

Yes, but...

Are we talking about how one decides that something exists, or what it means for something to exist?

Surely, there's a difference. A jury 'decides' whether the accused is innocent or guilty. But sometimes, regrettably, innocent people get convicted, and the guilty go free.

In the worrying scenario where a dreamer repeatedly 'wakes up', each time realizing that what went before was only a dream, surely there is one actually existing entity: the dreamer. The dreamer is an actual, physical person. How else would you tell the story?

What this seems to show, is that although the judgement that an object exists is always a relative judgement of experience, there is an absolute fact of the matter which is independent of any judgement that anyone might make. There is space. There are physical things. Full stop. Those are absolute facts. Subjects of experience, persons like you or I, make judgements about things. And sometimes, hopefully the vast majority of the time, our judgements are in fact correct.

When one feels the temptation to shout in philosophy, it should be taken as a warning sign. What point are you making, exactly, when you say — in that particular, urgent tone of voice — 'There are physical things'? To whom are you giving this information and for what purpose?

The fact you have just stated is not an empirical fact. It is a metaphysical fact. Empirical judgements about things are, as explained above, relational judgements of experience. These are the judgements we actually make, and the only judgements we are in a position to make. All science is built up on such relational judgements of experience.

If you are unhappy with that story, if you want more, then you hold a metaphysical theory — the theory known as materialism. You believe that space is a 'thing in itself' and that physical things — the objects of perception and scientific knowledge — are 'things in themselves'.

Things in space are what is. That is the ultimate reality.

In short, for you, the elephant in the room is matter, the stuff that physics describes. That is what 'what is' is.

Matter is everywhere, and all things we perceive involve matter and its properties. You and I are material. When we perceive, we perceive material things. When we dream or fantasize, we represent material things that exist only in the dream or fantasy. They are not actual because they are not, in fact, 'material things'. (According to the materialist theory of mind they are, in some form or other, complex configurations of brain matter.)

As theories go, materialism does not look particularly scary. In fact, given that most persons most of the time are not prone to metaphysical reflection, it would be hard to apply, or withhold the label 'materialism'. It is a toss up whether you say that it is 'common sense' to be a materialist (in the 'metaphysical' sense) or not.

So what?

If you believe that 'the elephant in the room is matter' then you most definitely hold a metaphysical theory.

If you say that there is no elephant in the room then you still hold a a metaphysical theory because you are taking sides in a metaphysical debate. You're in there, whether you like it or not.

There's no escape from metaphysics!

 

 

 


What is truth?

 

'The least thing you can say about a thing is that it is, that it exists.' What should we say about truth?

Things exist. Things said — statements — are true or false. Listening to the sounds coming through my window, I remark, 'Dogs are barking.' I have said something true. If I had said, 'Dogs are chirping,' that would have been false. Dogs don't chirp, they bark. If anything is chirping, it definitely isn't a dog. That's just a fact.

However, like all, or at least most, alleged facts, we can imagine circumstances in which it would not be a fact: say, the creation of a new breed of dog that chirps like a bird. I don't know all the breeds of dogs. If some rare breed of dog from Outer Mongolia chirps, then the chirping I hear could conceivably be a dog and not a bird. (Is there a chance of that I have to reckon with? I wouldn't know what to say.)

What is truth? A statement can be false. There are innumerable ways of getting the facts wrong. Sometimes, we are genuinely unsure of the truth of the matter, and we say, 'I don't know.' You can agree with a statement by saying, 'That is true,' or disagree with that statement by saying, 'That is false,' but you could be wrong to agree, or wrong to disagree, depending on the facts.

So we seem to be talking about two things, or kinds of thing: the things we state or believe, and the facts. 'The facts' — or what is 'in fact' or 'actually' the case — is the target our statements and beliefs aim at. You can hit the target, or you can miss. Sometimes, you can score a hit without realizing you have scored a hit, and sometimes you can miss the target without realizing that you missed.

We make judgements. Facts determine whether our judgements are true or false.

I don't know about you, but I catch a whiff of elephant.

Where are the facts, or the actual facts? We never get to see them. In many cases, you can be pretty damn sure that you have got hold of a fact, but that is just a 'believed' fact or an 'accepted' fact, not an actual fact. There's always the possibility of being wrong — or is there?

Reality consists of the actual facts. That looks a lot like a definition of reality. The actual facts exist in themselves. They remain facts regardless of what any individual or group of individuals believe or disbelieve. They would still be facts, even if no conscious beings had ever existed.

The passage of time deals mercilessly with things once 'known' to be true and now forgotten. The last shreds of evidence are destroyed. Yet the actual facts remain for all time, immune to destruction or change.

Let's call this definition of reality, 'realism'. As with materialism, you can hold the metaphysical theory of realism without even realizing that you 'hold a metaphysical theory' — a view about the elephant in the room.

What's more, you can be a realist and a materialist at one and the same time. The two theories are compatible. Does that mean we dealing now with two elephants or just one? Better be one, I don't think there could be room for two!

As in the case of materialism, the realist has a tendency to shout. 'Historical questions have answers, even if the evidence has been lost or destroyed.' Whom are you informing, on what occasion?

'Either there were dogs barking in the park at exactly 5pm or not.' For sure, dogs were barking around that time, but maybe no-one can say for sure exactly when to the nearest minute. 'But it's still a fact.' What is a fact? 'Either... or...' isn't a fact, because you've covered all the possibilities. What you stated as a fact, is merely a truth of logic. A tautology.

The alternative to realism is scary. The 'anti-realist' definition of reality describes a world full of gaps or holes. Once the evidence is lost, the 'fact' is gone, for all time. It never was. In a future time where all the evidence for the Holocaust is destroyed, the Holocaust never happened. (We can't say this because we have the evidence — but we see it, we grasp the awful possibility.)

Then again, what is it to be 'anti' realism? Is it to maintain a different view about the nature of the elephant in the room ('reality is full of holes') or is it to reject the question about 'an elephant in the room'?

The second alternative looks less scary. There's no saying 'what what is is', no 'definition' of reality in a 'realist' or 'anti-realist' sense. There is just reality, the things we talk about and form beliefs about. You can't say anything about 'truth' or 'facts' as such that isn't merely truistic.

To complete the survey, there's a view that is 'anti' materialism, that holds that the stuff of reality, what what is is, is mental rather than physical. You might have heard the theory, it's called 'idealism'. The history of idealism goes back a long way, at least back to Bishop Berkeley and his view that 'to exist is to perceive or be perceived.' On Berkeley's theory, when you look out onto the world, you are gazing at the inside of God's mind. If Berkeley is right, all your experience would be just as it is now, you wouldn't notice any difference.

So many theories (and variations on the theories, I haven't mentioned those). Right up to the present time, philosophers have continued to believe that you could establish the true theory by rational argument. Books and books have been written about it. I've tried this game over decades, and not come up with a convincing solution. So, maybe — I'm thinking — there isn't an answer. There isn't an answer because there is something wrong with the question.

But now comes the infuriating catch...

How many alternative theories have we considered? Are you good at counting?

In order of appearance:

We had materialism.

We had the no-elephant-in-the-room view (twice!).

We had realism.

We had anti-realism.

We had idealism.

— By my reckoning, that makes five (not counting combinations). If there is something wrong with the question, then isn't that a sixth view? How exactly does the 'something wrong with the question' theory differ from the 'no elephant in the room' theory? Or are they the same?

I say they are different.

I say this because I can see the possibility that the question is wrong (the question about the 'definition of reality', or 'what what is is') but nevertheless... there is an elephant in the room.

An unspeakable elephant. An elephant you can't talk about, you can't theorize about. It just is.

Being.

Parmenides said 'It is' (and that's all you can say).

The burning bush said to Moses, 'I am that I am.'

Wittgenstein said, 'A nothing serves as well as a something about which nothing can be said.'

Make up any words or descriptions you like for your invisible and untouchable elephant, they just slide off.

Make up any magic spell, the elephant refuses to go away.

 

 

 


Double vision

 

I once wrote a book of metaphysics. For a long time, I thought that would be the last book I would ever write. (I'm happy I was wrong.)

I called my book Naive Metaphysics. This turned out to be a bad decision, as reviewers assumed, wrongly, that I was setting out to 'do metaphysics in a naive way'.

In fact, as I stated at the beginning, the subject matter of my book is the naive attitude of metaphysical wonder, which you don't have to be a philosopher to feel — wonder at the very fact that there exists anything at all. The task I set out to do, in a non-naive way, was to analyse this sense of wonder — discover what exactly is the nature of the thing or things being wondered about.

So I proposed a theory about reality, about 'what what is is'. I called it a 'theory of subjective and objective worlds'. There are actually two things to wonder at, I claimed, not one: why there is the world, and why there is me, or my world.

The best bit about my book was the first sentence...

 

Logically, the world ought not to exist.

 

...I then went on to give the argument for that claim, but maybe I should have just stopped there. The world logically ought not to exist. Then what the hell is it doing existing? The laws of logic are the basic framework for all meaningful discourse, they can't be broken. But apparently they can be bent. — Morpheus was right!...

 

Taking our stand, then, in an ultimately illogical universe.

 

...Well, exactly. If the universe is illogical, if the rules can be bent, then you're allowed to say all sorts of things that bend logic. For example, holding that the fundamental truth about reality is a 'metaphysical contradiction' — two clashing views neither of which can be rejected.

To see the truth of this, I said, requires 'metaphysical double vision'.

As it happens, I lack binocular vision — I have a squint in layman's language — something I share with Jean-Paul Sartre. I've always wondered if there is a connection between having a squint and having a tendency towards dualism. When you suffer from double vision, you don't just see two images superimposed on one another. They somehow blend, your brain finds a way to cope with contradictory information.

According to my theory, if you are counting all the things that exist, you have to count them twice.

There are two worlds, because there are two distinct questions that you can ask about 'what is' — Why is there a world? and why is there me, or my world?

Here's a way to look at it: let's just suppose for the sake of argument that God exists and He made the world — and all the rest — as in the story of Genesis. There is one more task that God still had to do. He needed an extra day. Having made the world, which would one day give rise to a human being called 'GK', God had to bring it about that I am in the world. He had to make it the case that I am GK. He had to create my world.

(In my book I said that I couldn't see how God can do this, since from God's perspective, everyone is equally an 'I' — God is blind to the 'extra' metaphysical fact that I am in the world, just as He is blind to the metaphysical fact that the time is now. For God, all 'I's and 'now's look the same. But let's not be picky.)

But now comes the crunch question.

If there is an 'elephant the room', then in terms of my two-world theory, is there just one elephant or two? I said before that if you are a materialist and a realist, that had better be a view about the 'one' elephant because there isn't room for two. So doesn't the same argument apply here?

No. Because if the elephant is the world — fills it up leaving no space for anything else, least of all a second elephant — then my world must be the abode of elephant number two.

There are two 'elephants' because there are two 'rooms'. (And as I went on to state in my book, there are two typewriters that the two GKs are typing on, two desks, two studies, two Sheffields, two Earths etc. etc.)

You would be totally right to object that having one elephant — an unspeakable elephant, as I suggested — is bad enough. Two is worse. I mean, why stop there?

Monism, or the metaphysical view that somehow 'everything is one' has a certain charm. Is there something you don't understand about reality? Don't worry, it's all One. In the One, all apparent contradictions are resolved. (The 19th century British metaphysician F.H. Bradley said that about his 'Absolute'.)

So why not say the same thing here? Our two seemingly incompatible 'elephants' living in their two separate 'rooms' magically coalesce into one super-elephant.

Say that if you like, I'm not going to contradict you. Say anything you like.

— When you reach the point in philosophy when you realize that you can 'say anything you like', then you are no longer on the ground of truth. You are no longer saying anything, or making any intelligible claim.

You've lost it — whatever 'it' was.

I don't feel bereft at having lost my pet theory. If anything, I feel cured. I can move forward. My interest in metaphysical speculation is as keen as it ever was. I am still searching for a satisfactory way to conceive of 'what what is is'.

But right now I am stuck. Because I don't know how to go on. If all there really is is 'one super-elephant', about 'nothing can be said' then you are basically abandoning philosophy for mysticism.

To my mind, mysticism is as bad as religion, or worse, because not only are the comforts it offers imaginary, but it kills the very thing that gave rise to it — the philosopher's sense of wonder. (Mystical bliss or nirvana is something else entirely.)

This was never meant to be the end point of the inquiry, the quest. The sense of wonder is what propels you, what gives you the energy and the motive to ponder.

I like to ponder. I like to follow a line and see where it leads. That's the satisfying thing about philosophy — that it is never-ending.

So long as I live, I don't want this to end.

 

 

 


A fatal blink

 

It happened this morning at breakfast. I was expecting it to happen so I wasn't taken by surprise.

I blinked, and I woke up.

I was already awake. In fact, I had just started on my second piece of toast. What happened, exactly? I paused, knife in hand, a freshly openly pot of thick-cut marmalade in front of me, at least forty breakfasts' worth. (My book might be finished by then, I thought.) The sun had just come out from behind the clouds. Something changed, nothing dramatic. It might have been a piece of music starting up on the radio that reminded me of... I don't know what. You don't listen to the music you eat to, that's the point of having it in the background. (I know it was classical music, the only time I have it on the radio. I find it more digestive.)

I blinked, and the thought snuck into my head, 'What are you doing? what is this about?' And I couldn't answer. At that moment, I could not explain why this book is important to me, or even why I am writing at all. In the space of a single breath, my previous enthusiasm changed to an attitude of amused contempt. 'How many times have you tried this before? And what happened, every single time?'

Every time, I blinked and woke up. And then I stopped. Dead in my tracks.

I was expecting this. I was expecting this thought, this precise thought, to ambush me. I was waiting. This time I was prepared. I knew what was coming and I had already planned my strategy.

It's too facile to call this the 'onset of self-doubt'. Doubt is something I have all the time. I'm a professional sceptic. I have made doubt my home, my comfortable familiar environment. Doubt doesn't throw me. Neither does self-doubt — I am constantly suspicious about my own motives...

 

I listen to a lot of stories

Which I don't

Believe

Sometimes I listen

To myself

I don't believe me

Either

So why

Do you?

 

...This is something else. I am talking about the world changing. The world created for, and by my book, which I had just begun to settle down into — and the 'real' world, a world where the Earth is 93 million miles from the Sun, where the same radio program goes out to millions of homes, where millions of listeners munch their toast or sip their coffee, a world which is just... the world.

I said I was going to write about creativity. Isn't this, the thing that just happened to me, an essential part of the deal? You could even argue that it is the whole thing, there is and always has been only one question about creativity: how to maintain, defend, keep up this world-in-a-bubble where you know that it is safe to go on.

So, that was my plan. 'If the thought ambushes you, write about it. Stand your ground. Stare it down.'

This bubble, womb-like, nurturing, is my defence against the 'real world'. What is 'real', anyway? If you see things for what they are, just as they are, you'd want to kill yourself. The default psychological state is mild optimism. That's what gets us doing anything at all. (Why bother doing anything, if in the end we'll all be dead?)

The images of disaster and famine on the TV screen move you because you care, but you are also protected, distanced from it. Even rescuers and aid workers have that protection (you're not one of those starving to death). You can't be responsible for the whole world. Ultimately, you can only be responsible for you.

What protects and distances us is our capacity to dream.

The fact that human beings dream is a remarkable fact about us, although dreaming is by no means unique to the human species. Anyone with a cat or a dog would attest that their pet sometimes has dreams. It can be disturbing to watch.

In humans, dreaming has acquired a novel function that was never part of the original 'design'. While we sleep, our brain power is concentrated not just on reliving humdrum daily activities like foraging for the next meal, but in creating entire imaginary worlds. This is something we learned to do as human culture evolved. Regardless of theory, no-one would doubt that dreams and waking life co-exist in a relationship of powerful mutual influence.

If human beings did not know what it was to dream, our ability to be moved by, or to create fiction would be unintelligible. The same applies to art, music, architecture or any other creative interest or pursuit.

Human beings are of the real world, physically part of it, and yet we constantly find ways in fantasy to escape our bondage, break free from the constraints of physical necessity. That is our normal condition. We are not slaves to utility.

It is safe to go on. It is safe to go on. Creditors are not pounding on my door, I'm in decent health, the country isn't at war.

It is safe to go on, and what's more I know how to go on.

These chapters are not the lines of a proof where each line follows with logical necessity from the lines before. They are more like chess moves. In a chess game, until you reach a critical position, there are choices to make. You play your favourite opening, or your favourite defence. Or you choose a move that you think will take your opponent by surprise. In a critical position, you have to find the right move. There might be only one.

I didn't have to write about what I've chosen to write about this morning, 'blinking and waking up' (I'm not aware that this disturbing phenomenon has a name). However, it happened today so why not write about it today? It's one way to go on. Other choices for an essay topic might have been just as acceptable, worked just as well. I could have chosen to write about this some other time. But my default policy is to 'go with the flow'. Let serendipity dictate, as it has done here.

— What was it that happened to me? It's gone now, completely gone...

 

 

 


Knight of faith

 

I have slain a dragon. But I fear the dragon may come back. Dragons can do that — reincarnate. When it does, it will be wise to the tricks I used against it and I will have to find another plan.

I also had a nibble of an idea — that my quest (I don't mind using the term now that I've divested it of its magical associations) is about art and religion just as much as it is about philosophy. Art and religion are not included merely as additional seasoning to the dish. I need to understand them just as much as I need to understand what it is that I do.

Photography is one of the most difficult art forms (I don't mind using the term 'art' despite my hostility to the idea of 'art photography'). The difficulty of photography indicates its proximity to philosophy. The would-be creative photographer is constantly wrangling with philosophical questions.

(On reflection, what I have just said also applies to other art forms, not just photography, as art becomes increasingly 'conceptual'.)

And religion. Religions based on a 'family story' — the loving Father, etc. — derive their sustenance from the human proclivity for storytelling. When we read a novel or watch a movie, we willingly permit ourselves to be taken by the story and its characters, a strange half-awareness (that this is 'only' a movie, or a novel) which allows us to vicariously enjoy or suffer the joys and sufferings of the characters.

Wittgenstein remarks somewhere that we should be surprised that human beings enjoy fiction, not take it for granted. The link I drew in the last chapter between fiction and dreaming is a just theory, but a plausible one.

In religion, even if you don't literally believe, you allow yourself to simulate belief. You permit yourself to be taken into that world, in return for some perceived reward. You don't actually subscribe to the view that Jesus is God (say) and yet you still feel somehow that 'Jesus is my friend'. You imagine that he is up there, smiling at you. There is something infantile in this (not necessarily in an egregious sense). In a similar way, a child invents imaginary friends, especially an only child.

As I imagine my 'heavenly host', my invisible ever-present audience?...

Despite my vehement claims to be a disbeliever, I can see how my pat diagnosis of religion also applies to my own self. It applies to this very activity, what I am doing now, tapping these keys and seeing words come out onto the page. On one day, it all seems a perfectly reasonable, sensible thing to do. On another day, the very same process seems ridiculous, absurd. On one day I believe, and on the next I disbelieve — a 'way of seeing' that I grasp, then lose my grip, then grasp again.

My world-in-a-bubble. My God, I mustn't let it pop!

'Let go of irony, you are more worthy than that.' — I wasn't going to draw the obvious conclusion. I am aware that my beef with religion, is not so different from the beef the follower of one religion or sect has with the follower of another religion or sect — Christian versus Jew, Sunni versus Shiite, Catholic versus Protestant. Despite what I said about zombies, I don't envisage having to resort to violence. 'I'm a lover not a fighter.' Just hold on to your leaflets and I promise you won't be harmed.

Ha! I just remembered this scurrilous piece of bloggery...

 

For those who are genuinely searching, this world is a dangerous place. If I put a word wrong, I could be prosecuted under British Law for 'incitement to religious hatred'. The law was primarily devised to protect Muslims. Previously, Christians (and only they) had the protection of the 'common law' against Blasphemy and Blasphemous Libel. The UK is of course a Christian country, as enshrined in the British Constitution. Church of England Bishops sit in the House of Lords, etc.

My proposal, as spokesman for the No-God Party, is that after the disestablishment of the Church, all houses of religious worship — churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, etc. — be taken over by the State and converted into accommodation for the homeless. That would be a far better use for large buildings which are empty most of the week, and fully in line with what the various religions preach.

The Church Commissioners preside over vast tracts of land in the UK, representing great wealth. As landlords, they take their fiduciary duties seriously. A state takeover of all church owned land would help reduce the budget deficit. The government could afford to lower the rents for those properties, to the benefit of lower income families who are currently struggling.

Religious belief should be treated as what it is: a form of mental illness. Not sufficiently dangerous or debilitating to qualify for Sectioning under the Mental Health Act, but a suitable case for treatment nonetheless. Proselytizing for a religion should be regarded by the Law as a public nuisance, and when those on the receiving end are children, it should be classified as child abuse.

 

...The thing about politics is that it isn't just making happen states of the world or society that you would 'like' to happen. Every political action has unintended consequences. Politics is a chess game. A lot of changes will have had to have happened between then and now.

Meanwhile, I have to be fair to my friends, many of whom suffer from various shades of religious belief. Am I not a sufferer too? I said that the desire to solve the problem of the ultimate nature of existence is not unlike the desire to see the face of God. Not unlike, but still not the same. You 'know' what is out there (or up there) I don't. I don't know and I don't know how you think you can know. That is my ultimate sticking point...

 

I can't help thinking of what I'm doing as searching for a solution which will be found. As absurd as it seems, as it obviously is. Besides the search, so-called, there is nothing. I know, I know, I know. But even as I repeat those words, over and over, I don't really believe it. Why would I be doing this, if I didn't think I was going somewhere, not just treading water, keeping afloat, staring at an unmoving horizon? I believe. The faith of the philosopher. A true Kierkegaardian knight of faith!

 

...Exactly.

 

 

 


Philosophy as a way of life

 

'Philosophy as a way of life.' — What is that about, exactly? Could philosophy be a substitute for religion?...

 

Some persons search for God, and find philosophy. Others search for philosophy and find God. And some make the foolish mistake — I sincerely hope it's not one I've ever been tempted to make — of making a God out of philosophy. I am mentioning religion, even though I know it will make some of you feel a little uncomfortable (I promise I won't mention it again) because one theme that seems to emerge is the questing philosopher's lack of faith. The knights who sought the Holy Grail were infused with faith. The philosopher demands that everything be reasoned out, made plain. 'How will I know when I've found what I'm looking for', Meno complains to Socrates, 'if I don't even know what it is?' In Plato's dialogue Meno, Socrates makes the young aristocrat Meno look like a buffoon, but to me he sounds like a typical philosopher.

To say that one doesn't know what philosophy is might seem a shocking admission from someone who professes to teach the subject. Those of you who think you know the answer to my question will be ready with your commiseration — or your scorn. When I've finished my talk you can tell me all about it.

 

...That was from a talk, 'Can philosophy be taught' which I gave in 1999. Aunt Vicky (remember her?) accompanied me to Conway Hall in Holborn, London, headquarters of the Ethical Society, an organization which traces its history back to 1787 as a 'dissident congregation... in rebellion against the doctrine of eternal hell'. Cheers to that.

The occasion was a joint meeting of the Conway Hall Ethical Society and the Philosophical Society of England, who had recently appointed me Director of Studies. Three years later, I was to 'propose a schism' which led to the formation of the International Society for Philosophers. (The jury is still out on whether or not that was my finest hour.)

Philosophy as a Way of Life is the title of a book by the French scholar Pierre Hadot. The book made a huge impression on a student of mine, Martin O'Hagan, a campaigning journalist who met his death at the hands of the Protestant paramilitary Red Hand Gang.

In a ghastly quirk of fate, the murder happened while I was in Dublin, where I had been invited to give a presentation to a conference on distance learning technology. It was September 2001. I saw the BBC News on the TV in my hotel room.

At the conference, just a couple of days before, I'd been singing Martin's praises. He'd contributed a brilliant essay to the Pathways to Philosophy web site, 'Philosophical considerations on discourse/ praxis', about his journey from IRA sympathiser to Stoicism — the philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Apart from that, I didn't know much about him. When Martin first contacted Pathways, his name meant nothing to me. I didn't know that in Northern Ireland he was a household word.

To this day, I've harboured the nagging suspicion someone heard me talk about Martin and passed the word along — an allegation I can never prove, of course. On the other hand, human beings have great difficulty in accepting that sheer coincidences do sometimes happen.

I remember sitting on the edge of my bed in numb disbelief. I tried phoning my wife but couldn't get her to understand what I was saying.

The most powerful feeling, initially, is, 'This cannot be real.' Glancing up at the Twin Towers and seeing an aeroplane crash into the steel and glass windows. Feeling the shock wave from a car bomb going off and seeing human limbs fly in all directions. As those who have experienced events like this will testify, it takes long seconds for the information to sink in and have any effect...

 

Dublin International Airport is a conveyor belt of seething humanity spewing out its product into the sky. With several hours to kill, I have taken refuge at one of the round tables in the eating area which I have covered with my work. On every side, there is constant motion and clatter while I remain an island of calm...

I wish I had never come to this God-forsaken island.

A few moments ago, I was putting the finishing touches to my piece on the murder of Philosophical Society student and newspaper reporter Martin O'Hagan for Pathways News Issue 16 which is going out today. Let me repeat that in case you were not paying attention. I said cold blooded, brutal murder. How could those around me be so indifferent to the words screaming from this page? Ah, but most of them already know! The story is front page news in all the Sunday newspapers. Another death in Northern Ireland to add to all those that have gone before.

 

...What use, if any, is philosophy?

In his book, Pierre Hadot documents the rich tradition going back to the times of the Ancient Greeks which holds that the chief aim of philosophy is to enable us to learn how to live well. God doesn't figure. The followers of Epicurus were materialists and emphasised the 'higher pleasures' such as studying philosophy, while the main inspiration for the Stoics was the life of Socrates and Plato's metaphysical theory of Forms — other-worldly archetypes of the moral virtues, knowledge of which is inseparable from right action.

All very worthy. Why doesn't this help? Why am I not moved?

My motivation is the pursuit of knowledge — for its own sake, not for the sake of living well. Not any old knowledge, of course, but knowledge that relates to the elephant in the room — the nature of existence.

Looking into myself, I see that I have feelings, some benevolent and some malevolent. My default position is benevolence. My instinctive reactions are 'normal', on a scale between saints and criminal psychopaths. Would I let human beings come to harm for the sake of knowledge, however valuable? No, because I am insufficiently ruthless. Would I ever be tempted to put my life on the line the way Martin did? I doubt that very much.

I had a dream that relates to this a couple of weeks ago. I'd been watching documentaries on 9/11 the previous evening. There had been a catastrophe, possibly a nuclear attack. I was walking past one burning building when I saw a man at a ground floor window crying out. In the dream I told myself that if I went to help, I was risking serious injury or possibly death. Then, as I continued walking, I could hear the cries of would-be rescuers as they were scorched by the flames.

This is a nice example of how dreams serve to rehearse our thought processes. What would I do in a real-life situation? I would attempt a risk analysis. My life is more valuable to me than the life of someone I don't know. But that person's life is still worth something, not nothing. How much it is worth determines the level of risk I am prepared to take in this particular situation. If it had been a friend or family member, I might have made a different decision.

Maybe my dream was raising that very question: should one calculate, or is it better to act instinctively?

Philosophers have philosopher-dreams.

 

 

 


Herr Doktor Faust

 

You may have heard the story. A dissatisfied scholar makes a pact with the Devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge. In one version of the tale that I particularly like, the knowledge in question is knowledge to which mere mortals are unable to attain — knowledge of a transcendent realm, the source of all existence.

Things do not go according to plan... for Dr Faust.

— A generous glass of rocket fuel today. I have the perfect background music, Jimi Hendrix's 1968 album Electric Ladyland.

'All Along the Watchtower...'

American blues mythology tells a story of the guitar player who goes down to the crossroads and comes back with devilish skills that leave his contemporaries stunned and disbelieving. Bluesman Robert Johnson reputedly made that journey, as did another Robert, a little known folk artist doing the rounds at clubs around Greenwich Village. Bob Dylan came back from the crossroads with a head full of original compositions that won him his first recording contract and lasting fame.

Jimi Hendrix took Dylan's song and turned it into one of the unforgettable anthems of the 60s. It still makes my skin prickle every time I hear it.

Maybe the crossroads legend is true. If it is, then Mr Zimmerman can hardly complain that he got a bad deal. How many would be tempted to do the same in his circumstances?

Maybe Jimi made the same journey. Some would say he was cheated when his life was so cruelly cut short. I wonder if that is true.

On the other hand, poor Dr Faust got a very bad deal indeed.

I have suggested a possible take on the story. You can read Goethe's Faust in one of the English translations. The one I have runs to over 700 pages. I will read it some day — when I'm retired.

There is an affinity there which I cannot deny. I have the same metaphysical hunger, the same dissatisfaction with all the knowledge this world has to offer.

On the other hand, when you see your life, every aspect of your life, as a mere means to one end, you are in serious difficulty. You need a therapist. When that end is unattainable in principle, with or without the Devil's aid, then you are well and truly fucked.

The fatal error made by Dr Faust was not that he put insufficient value on his soul, but rather believing — allowing himself to be duped into thinking — that the knowledge he would receive in return was the knowledge he was seeking.

Dr Faust for all his cleverness doesn't really know what he's after. Unfortunately for him, he thinks he does know. — That was the fatal flaw in his character.

There's one born every minute.

That is also what makes the story a tragedy. Although, I am tempted to see it rather as a comedy. I can't help being reminded of Monty Python's famous dead parrot sketch. ('I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. 'E's dead, that's what's wrong with it!' 'No, no, 'e's uh... he's resting.' 'Look, matey, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now!...')

Mephistopheles traded a dead parrot for Dr Faust's soul.

I like to think that the difference between me and Dr Faust is that I know that I don't know the thing I'm after. (Which is not to say that I'm immune from coming to a sticky end.)

I know that I don't know. But what I also know is that, supposing that such knowledge did exist somewhere — say, on a planet in the Andromeda galaxy — I would be incapable of understanding it. This is the kind of knowledge where you can't miss out the steps in between. The steps are what Hegel calls the 'dialectic'. There are no short cuts to philosophical knowledge.

And that was Dr Faust's second mistake. He thought that with the Devil's help he could skip all the steps. There's a great scene in The Matrix where Neo, actor Keanu Reeves, after being unplugged from the training program exclaims, 'I know kung fu!' On Keanu's face, there is a mixture of incredulity and delight. Dr Faust just wanted to know the answers to his questions, without all the tiresome effort and years of study.

Like Dr Faust, what philosophy means to me is the Question. I mean (in case you haven't been paying attention) the question of the nature of existence: what what is is. The elephant in the room. I am puzzled. I am gripped. I want to know. But if a demon appeared and offered me a trade, I wouldn't believe him, or it. I wouldn't believe that the demon had the answer I was seeking, in fact I would know that it was not.

How to go on? What should I be looking for?

That's Meno's famous dilemma: 'How will I know when I've found what I'm looking for if I don't even know what it is?'

My answer to Meno is, 'Have faith, you will just know.'

If you don't know which direction to search, you do a search pattern. That's how it's done — systematically and exhaustively. If you see a clue then by all means follow it, but don't count on there being any clues.

Meanwhile, I will continue questioning myself. The answer is in here, somewhere — as Socrates and Plato believed. In my own mind. No-one can give me the answer.

Tonight I shall put a notepad and pencil next to my bed. Just in case.

 

 

-END-

 

 


About the author

 

Born in London in 1951, Geoffrey Klempner attended University College School 1964-69. During 1970-71 he worked as a photographer's assistant, followed by a brief spell on Fleet Street at Barratt's Photo-Press.

In 1976, he gained a First Class Honours BA in Philosophy from Birkbeck College London. He went on to University College Oxford, where he gained his B.Phil in Philosophy in 1978, followed by a D.Phil in 1982.

He moved to Sheffield in 1985, where he did a period of part-time teaching for the University of Sheffield, Rotherham College and the WEA.

In 1994, his book Naive Metaphysics was published by Avebury. Professor D.W. Hamlyn, Editor of Mind 1972-84, described it as "a work of very considerable originality, not easy perhaps but one of unmistakable importance and standing."

In 1995 he founded Pathways to Philosophy, which has attracted students from over 90 countries, including students taking the BA (Hons) in Philosophy through the University of London International Programme.

He has authored numerous blogs including ‘Glass House Philosopher’, ‘Sophist’ and ‘Hedgehog Philosopher’. His most recent article is ‘Philosophy, Ethics and Dialogue’ which appeared in the Journal of Dialogue Studies in 2014.

His YouTube channel youtube.com/user/GVKlempner has inspired much of the material for Philosophizer.

He is widowed, with three daughters.