© Geoffrey Klempner 2016
All rights reserved.
Scaly yellow skin
Edging slowly fin by fin
As I ascend the iron stairs
Sphinx of black quartz
I am awake
The deep mystery of things
I exist therefore what?
Philosophers and sophists
Why art moves us
A touch of poshlust
The dark side of life
A wolf's sense of smell
Good study habits
The colour black
An idiotic conundrum
Return of the evil
The inverted world
How much intelligence does a philosopher need?
Vanity of vanities
The world as a puzzle
God on whose side?
Photography as metaphysics
Elephant in the room
What is existence?
What is truth?
A fatal blink
Knight of faith
Philosophy as a way of life
Herr Doktor Faust
About the Author
Ruth, Judith and Francesca
‘Men become what they
— You have dreamed
(Grey Owl, 1999)
Philosophizer was conceived
early in 2016,
but some of the materials go
nearly two decades. Passages in italics
are taken from
my blogs and other writings.
original sources for quoted excerpts from
Philosopher’ can be found on the web at
Sphinx of black quartz
am not someone
am perfect in every way
that has happened in my life
for a reason
I should become
person that I am
the world created
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.
least I remember where the keys are.)
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
least it's quiet. All plastic, runs on batteries. Nice smell, too. Rubber and
paper. What will we do when all the trees have gone? A stupid question. We'll
all be dead, of course.
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.
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.
excellent idea. Let's ban writing and give all authors and would-be authors a
where was I?...
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
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.
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.
disgust me — more than words can say. I'd rather play my penny whistle.
Or sing. Wordlessly.
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...
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.
I'm OK, thanks.'
am staring down at the plate, at the Persian carpet, anywhere but at my host's
wish I could put her mind at ease. But I say nothing. Why am I here?
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.
I help you with that, darling?'
can never get these damn things to work!'
should have had Peter here. From downstairs. He's so helpful.'
turns to me with a nervous smile.
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.
the other end of the room, I can hear husband and wife whispering.
recommended him. He must be good.'
keeps a guitar in a cardboard box? Can't he afford a guitar case?'
could buy him one.'
fee was agreed. If he wants to spend the money on marijuana that's his
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.
lopsidedly, I realize I still have one of the butterfly nuts between my lips.
I don't know where this goes.'
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
and I were discussing your hair style. We saw someone just like you on Top of
the Pops. He was a coloured gentleman.'
would have been Jimi Hendrix.'
name obviously rings a bell. But Nat King Cole he isn't. I've stumbled into a
feeling is confirmed when I start reading the lyrics on the music sheet Bernie
I only had green fingers
would plant me a ro-ose
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'.
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.)
hours later, after trying various arrangements, we finally have something on
tape. We're saying our goodbyes.
and I think you have a wonderful voice. Transatlantic. You could be a pop
nonsense, comes sense, and from sense, nonsense. Incidents from my life laid
out like postage stamps.
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...
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
pilchard made of semolina (or the colour of semolina?) is climbing up the
elementary penguin (what other grades of penguin are there?) is singing 'Hare
Krishna' (with cymbal accompaniment? without?).
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
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.
precision, the finely tuned judgement, is there to see — if you have the
eyes to see it.
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.
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?
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?
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.
you don't see the logic, then you don't understand, even if you think you do.
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
isn't restriction. Necessity is liberation. Spinoza said that.
I am awake
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.
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.
when I think about philosophy during the day, it doesn't have the same effect.
not a philosophical question but a scientific one, a question about human
psychology and physiology — an invitation to put forward a theory.
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.
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.
I am — again.
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.
out of bed in the morning, that's the first challenge.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
the Land of Lilliput
you are the Little People
like the buzzing
kind of book is this? Who is it for?
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.
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.
is a reader (apart from my alternative possible self) whom I would like to
please — in that way. A good many readers in fact.
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.
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.
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.
you have work to do. Work is good for you. It improves you.
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.)
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!)
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?)
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
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.
words could kill!
kind of reader are you? Well, if you got this far...)
I guess that's one difference between me and Pirsig. He's a nicer guy.
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?)
it catharsis — a good Greek word.
exercise is cathartic for me. I need this.
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.
that's what this is. I've got it now.
it is also something more.
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
was not what Gorgias thought. Who knows what he really thought? It
didn't matter. That wasn't the point.
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
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.
better, I am perfecting myself as a philosopher.
what follows, I will only say what I think and believe, because that's
what a philosopher does.
have nothing to advertise, nothing to sell.
dabbled in irony — and it doesn't work for me.
truth is all that matters now...
The deep mystery of things
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
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
like old things.
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.
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.
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...
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
is one of the most profound facts about our human relation to the world. That
is something Freud saw.
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.
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.
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.
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.
relates to my childhood 'swooning' episode, recorded on the front page of my
Glass House Philosopher blog...
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.
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.
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.
I in the universe?
is the universe in me?
universe made me
universe left its
truth of the universe
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.
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.
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.
is the key. Presence of mind.
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?
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.
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.
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'.
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.)
Socrates meant by 'Know thyself,' however, was very different from the accepted
understanding of the Delphic maxim.
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'.
is Plato's so-called 'theory of recollection'. When Socrates said, 'Know
thyself,' he meant, 'Recall what you truly are.'
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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'.
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.
is the art of reason.
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.
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
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'.
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.
there is a fly in the ointment.
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.)
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.
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.
neither should you.
I exist therefore 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!...
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'.
is a lot easier to sound like a philosopher than it is to be one. Very
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.
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.)
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
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.
and necessity, two sides of the same coin.
that first mark... you had to hold your breath... stifle the sense of mounting
panic... and leap.
terror of the blank page or blank canvas. It never gets any easier, so I'm
not to think.
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.
need a question, any question. This one caught my eye...
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?'
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.
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.
in all, an incredible chance, a fantastical improbability.
almost impossible to believe. But let's just look at the alternative.
had to exist. I could not have failed to have been born. How does that sound?
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.)
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?
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.
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?!
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.
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.)
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.
am the one asking the question,' is a fundamental principle of metaphysics.
Impossible though it may seem, I exist.
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?
yourself, don't ask me!
Philosophers and sophists
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?
shut him up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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'.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
a waste of talent.
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
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!
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.)
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
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?'
love this. Thank you, Jake.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
anything which gives shape and depth to human emotions enhances the quality of
how does the painting do this? There is no short, pat answer.
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.
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
shall be coming back to the topic of photography later.)
am happy with an eclectic account of aesthetics which says that aesthetic value
can sometimes be this and sometimes be that, or sometimes both.
is in the eye of the beholder.
A touch of poshlust
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.)
question about the Russian word poshlust looks interesting. My
grandparents came from Russia so I could claim a kind of affinity — at a
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
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.'
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.
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.
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.
again, one person's 'gods' are another person's 'devils'.)
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'.
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.
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
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
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?
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'?
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
Nietzsche, the overriding imperative is, 'Do not make others ashamed.' Taking
advantage of the moral high ground, making others ashamed, is 'slave morality'.
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.
prigs. There's nothing so repellant as a person parading their hypertrophied
'aesthetic sense' or 'moral conscience'.)
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
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?
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.
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'.
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.
think the term is 'guilty pleasures'.
The dark side of life
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
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?'
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...
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.
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.
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
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.
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?'
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
out of it. Take a pill. Pour yourself a drink. Or, better, go out and see a
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
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!).
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
you live long enough.
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
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.
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
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.
I might fail. So what?
how many times I've failed before, at so many things... but I'm not even going
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
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
thought you wanted to learn how to make tournedos rossini? Anyway, I don't
agree. It's not that complicated.'
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.'
like this, I realize how dim I am, or can be. One observation is worth a
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
brain sparking away, doing its thing. Maybe.
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.
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.
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.
should have said, I was training to be a chemist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
who can, do. Those who can't, philosophize.
is yet hope
a sufficiently large
else a mountain
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'.
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.
book would have been better if it had been a lot shorter.' I think that's what
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
wanted to talk about language and the way 'sense comes nonsense and nonsense
wanted to talk about the nature of art — and photography in particular, a
passion that predates my passion for philosophy.
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.
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'.
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.)
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.
A is where I am now and B is the ground, you can see why!)
for another question...
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?'
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
other words, the case of Roger Federer is (according to Alvin) a reductio ad
absurdum of Camus' views on absurdity.
first thought that occurs to me is, How can Alvin be so sure that Federer
hasn't read Camus?
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.'
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
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?
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
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?
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
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.
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?
is there anything actually seen? Or is it just something we
imagine, a fact about our human psychology? That's the question.
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.
isn't real. There's nothing out there to see.
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'.
to be seen?!
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
why do I feel so cheerful?
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!
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.
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.
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
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...
said Eminem, 'there goes gravity!')
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
I am not. What I am entrapped by is my past. That struggle has only just begun.
will take some time to get used to this, to wean myself off the 'ring quest'
is no final chapter, no ending — happy or unhappy. No 'culmination of the
quest'. Only death which brings all things to an end.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
fumbled the tiny keys on my Psion pocket computer.
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
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
you're not happy with the results, fire the coach.
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!
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.
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...
TV channel you watch
all showing the same thing
one long ad break
girls and boys
of milky breasts down the high street
known as cash machines
to the milky breast
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
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.
yet, amongst all this jumble and rubble, you know that there is
something of value, if only you could... sniff it out?
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.
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, 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!)
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.
wolf's sense of smell...
in the wilderness
have learned to survive
love the barren wastes
I find food I gorge
sing to myself
trace of my footsteps
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.
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.
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.
thought comforts me, even though I know it is only my own invention. When my
eyes are closed I am still bathed in light.
do you measure the strength of an emotion? the sheer, raw power of desire?
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.
is method in my madness. Extreme circumstances require extreme measures.
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...
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.
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.
philosophy isn't the question I'm after.
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.
accept myself and my nature as a given fact.'
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.
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.)
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
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!)
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'.
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
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.
that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever done, was necessary in
order for me to become the person that I am.
this book is necessary.
is not necessary to ask why.
Good study habits
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.'
was undoubtedly a great philosopher, but sometimes he goes to annoying lengths
in stating the obvious.
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
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.
much for Aristotle.
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.
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.
spent the last 12 years of his life in a catatonic state after experiencing a
catastrophic nervous breakdown.)
we're talking about is not just proficiency or success — this is about
dream I once had seems to encapsulate my feelings about this...
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.
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
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?'
that's when I woke up.
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
is hard,' my father used to say.
The colour black
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.
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.
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...
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.
of my favourite numbers came from the pens of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards,
Paint it Black.
want to paint it all black — black as night, as coal. I want to blot the
sun out from the sky.'
another great favourite with the crowd, Robert Zimmerman, Knocking on Heaven's
bury my guns — they're no use to me any more. I can see a long black
cloud coming down.'
shall argue the case that black is the colour of philosophy. This has nothing
to do with my mood.
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.
PROPOSITION The blue sky — is a nothing but a lie.
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.
PROPOSITION Philosophers wear white robes when they aspire to be priests
— or scientists.
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.
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
is better than nothing. That's as good a description as any of the majority of
my blog posts over the years.
yet, they have served a purpose. They keep me company, all my former selves.
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.)
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.
dream and remember.
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.
years old, in a lumberjack jacket, the gaffer's lad. There's a black and white
photo somewhere. Me in my tiny specs.
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?
can still smell the petrol fumes and the cold, damp clay.
on the slippery mud.
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.'
must be an explanation why I gave that impression. Or was I just plain lazy?
(But what does that explain?)
love to pin labels, don't they? Bastards. Did they hate me?)
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.
is that? a word in my private code?
also serve who stand and wait.' Who said that?
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.
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.
I am doing now.
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
I am alone...
go of irony
are more worthy than that
not clever enough
see past it
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.
it a novel? autobiography? a philosophy essay?
that it makes any difference to you one way or the other, but I am singing my
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
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!'
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:
you see I'm lonely?'
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.
this emptiness one day came philosophy, and I was rescued.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
world will not be changed, but maybe I will?
this will be helpful to someone reading these words — as a 'filter', a
defence against the ideology of s0-called 'common sense'.
thing I want to do is investigate the roots of creativity.
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.
can it be that the times when I've experienced the most misery were in fact
times when I was most happy?
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?
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.
the concise version. I would hazard a guess that there's more to it than that.
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.
is like a game of chess,' as Bananarama once sang.)
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!)
need to be working creatively.
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...
of the evil demon
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...
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.
you me? Am I you? If not, the who the hell are you? Why do you keep bothering
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.
alien. The monstrous. Am I the monster? Could I be?
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.
only remedy is to STOP THINKING.
my eyes. Don't look. Try not to feel.
now on, my fingers can do the work for me. Let them tap these keys as they
will. Brain and senses disconnected.
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.
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.
power to turn reality into a dream...
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.
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
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.
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.
what does matter? Does anything matter? Why carry on?
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
Wittgenstein say something along those lines?)
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.
a point of view.
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'.)
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.
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.
feel the lack of power. I want more. I want to face the universe on equal
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.
was all an illusion.
fairy tale. Just some 'story' for grizzled professors to chuckle over. Learned
scholars reverting to infancy.
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
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.
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.
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...
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!'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
chapter in question is entitled, cryptically, 'The Inverted World'.
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.
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
'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).
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
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.
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
— There's an elephant in the room!
could be a Heideggerian elephant or a Whiteheadian elephant. But I suspect that
it is neither.
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...
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.
was that all about? )
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?
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!
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:
guesses, then see if they are proved right. (It's a lot like making an
experiment to test a hypothesis.)
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.)
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.
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
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.
more than one kind of 'intelligence'.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?'
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
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.
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.
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.
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
I said I wasn't going in for irony...)
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
— First you administer the poison. Then you offer your quack remedy.
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.
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.
what then? The same fate awaits the celebrated philosopher as awaits the bum.
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.
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!)
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?
is a defence of free inquiry. More, I'm stating that inquiry can set you free
— when pursued honestly, relentlessly, if necessary recklessly.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
am the Inquirer, looking down on the world of questions and more questions.
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.
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?
a question I need to answer, if only for my own satisfaction.
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.
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.
we are alive, everyday life is simply — everything.
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.
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.)
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.
is repetition. So is walking, or jogging, or climbing the stairs. Or writing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
are unconscious of our own unique existence.
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.
I am, fully, my own reason, or I am here without a reason, a sheer contingency,
an accident of being.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
is the defining attribute of now.
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.
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
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
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.
your life. — 'An idiotic conundrum has you fooled.'
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.
my bare chest.
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.)
question is this:
is the average age of a human being considering the question of 'the meaning of
the universe, life and everything'?'
answer is — around about 42.
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.
the best of the time you have left — or don't. It makes no difference.
ultimate question, the question of the universe, life and everything is, and
has always been, about death and nothing but death.
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'.
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
comes to mind when you think of a puzzle?
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.
way, there's something that counts as 'solving the puzzle'.
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
a 'Rumsfeld', an unknown unknown.
— Does that help or not?
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.)
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.
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
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.
what is it that I want?
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...
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.)
it be bad? Could it be all bad?
crux of religion is the determination to believe, despite all the evidence,
that somehow Goodness (with a capital 'G') is ultimately responsible for
are no inexplicable contingencies. Everything is explained by Goodness.
Everything is ultimately for the best. It's as simple as that.
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.)
say, 'Believe what you like, it makes no difference.'
believing in 'six impossible things before breakfast'. If you find that too
difficult, start with one and work up. You'll get there, eventually.
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!
can't be 'saved' either. But then I don't want to be. I just want to know...
God on whose side?
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
not to think, then. Just write.
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...
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.
then, the poor, doomed inhabitants of Jericho, whom God declared suitable for
extermination so that His people could have somewhere to live?
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.
Zimmerman said it best, in his song, 'With God On Our Side'.
the one who has to decide — whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.'
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.
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.)
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.
I am God?
considered that possibility.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
it be true? the whole truth?
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.'
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?
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'.
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?
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!')
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...
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.
I am the author of my own existence. My life is mine.
to the topic of chemistry.
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.
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'.
like the image of the mad scientist. It excuses a lot.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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...
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.
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.
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.)
this is the first time I've ever mentioned the bit about my 'looking like a
philosopher'. It niggles.
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
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
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.'
what if I did?
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.
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.
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.
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.
became what, as a lad, he had always dreamed of being.
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'.
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.
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
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
could only stand back and admire.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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...
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.
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.
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.
comes the difficult part,' I said...
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.
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?
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.
does creative photography.
same point can be put more simply and much more devastatingly: there is no
world. All seeing is 'seeing as'.
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.
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
Orwell wrote in his novel 1984 about replacing English with
stripped-down 'Newspeak', he wasn't just speculating about some future
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.
that's not the real task? Again, I don't know.
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.
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.)
isn't meant for fun. This is serious. But all the while, I am smiling.
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
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.
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.
goodness for that. It all comes home. My former selves and 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?
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.
question is the key... to everything.
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.
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.
all going to die.
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...
cannot kill me
I am already dead
aimed my shotgun
the creature's head
pulled the trigger
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...
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.
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.
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.
as the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides stated, in his lofty prose: 'It Is'.
Nuff said. What is, is. What is not, is impossible and unthinkable.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
call that, 'the elephant in the room'.
Elephant in the room
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'.
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.
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.
is my hymn of praise to Whitehead...
an elephant in the room.
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.
looked everywhere and not found my elephant. And yet I absolutely know it is
there, hiding somewhere.
the elephant is invisible? (And intangible.) Or a very tiny elephant that
smells and sounds bigger than it is.
did I put my microscope?!
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
are the actual entities? What is it that ultimately accounts for everything
real, all experience, all existence? That was Whitehead's question.
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.
aren't important, actual existence is.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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).
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
could it be that the occurrence of metaphysical illusion is itself some kind of
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
— 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?
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.
things exist. What I have said is true.
exactly is the difference between existence and truth? Existence refers to
things, truth refers to things said. Maybe that's an important difference, or
start with existence.
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.
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.
in space — that looks like a plausible definition of reality.
is space real? how do you know?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!)
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.
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.
we talking about how one decides that something exists, or what it
means for something to exist?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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'.
in space are what is. That is the ultimate reality.
short, for you, the elephant in the room is matter, the stuff that
physics describes. That is what 'what is' is.
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.)
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.
you believe that 'the elephant in the room is matter' then you most definitely
hold a metaphysical theory.
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.
no escape from metaphysics!
What is truth?
least thing you can say about a thing is that it is, that it exists.'
What should we say about truth?
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.
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.)
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.
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.
don't know about you, but I catch a whiff of elephant.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.)
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'?
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.
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
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
now comes the infuriating catch...
many alternative theories have we considered? Are you good at counting?
order of appearance:
had the no-elephant-in-the-room view (twice!).
— 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?
say they are different.
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.
unspeakable elephant. An elephant you can't talk about, you can't theorize
about. It just is.
said 'It is' (and that's all you can say).
burning bush said to Moses, 'I am that I am.'
said, 'A nothing serves as well as a something about which nothing can be
up any words or descriptions you like for your invisible and untouchable
elephant, they just slide off.
up any magic spell, the elephant refuses to go away.
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.)
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
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.
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.
best bit about my book was the first sentence...
the world ought not to exist.
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!...
our stand, then, in an ultimately illogical universe.
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.
see the truth of this, I said, requires 'metaphysical double vision'.
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.
to my theory, if you are counting all the things that exist, you have to count
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?
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.
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.)
now comes the crunch question.
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?
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.
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.)
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?
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'.)
why not say the same thing here? Our two seemingly incompatible 'elephants'
living in their two separate 'rooms' magically coalesce into one
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.
lost it — whatever 'it' was.
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'.
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.
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.)
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
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.
long as I live, I don't want this to end.
A fatal blink
happened this morning at breakfast. I was expecting it to happen so I wasn't
taken by surprise.
blinked, and I woke up.
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.)
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
time, I blinked and woke up. And then I stopped. Dead in my tracks.
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.
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...
listen to a lot of stories
don't believe me
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
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.
that was my plan. 'If the thought ambushes you, write about it. Stand your
ground. Stare it down.'
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?)
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
protects and distances us is our capacity to dream.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is safe to go on, and what's more I know how to go on.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
reflection, what I have just said also applies to other art forms, not just
photography, as art becomes increasingly 'conceptual'.)
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.
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.
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.
I imagine my 'heavenly host', my invisible ever-present audience?...
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.
world-in-a-bubble. My God, I mustn't let it pop!
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.
I just remembered this scurrilous piece of bloggery...
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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...
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!
Philosophy as a way of life
as a way of life.' — What is that about, exactly? Could philosophy be a
substitute for religion?...
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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...
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...
wish I had never come to this God-forsaken island.
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
use, if any, is philosophy?
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.
very worthy. Why doesn't this help? Why am I not moved?
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.
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.
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.
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.
my dream was raising that very question: should one calculate, or is it better
to act instinctively?
Herr Doktor Faust
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
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.
Along the Watchtower...'
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
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.
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
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.
the other hand, poor Dr Faust got a very bad deal indeed.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
one born every minute.
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!...')
traded a dead parrot for Dr Faust's soul.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
to go on? What should I be looking for?
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?'
answer to Meno is, 'Have faith, you will just know.'
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.
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.
I shall put a notepad and pencil next to my bed. Just in case.
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.