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pathways (guide)

CAN PHILOSOPHY BE TAUGHT? (3)

Assorted puzzles

'We are all philosophers'. That doesn't sound quite as convincing when translated as, 'We all have views about Being.' Do we? Do you? Wouldn't it be nearer the mark to say that most persons' lives are not touched by the question of Being in any way, shape or form? It is as if the Presocratics had never existed.

In the gloom of such scepticism, another seminal idea was born, just in time to rescue me for another round of WEA classes. My mistake, I now decided, had been to look for the wood, when all we're really interested in are the trees. Forget about defining philosophy, or giving 'necessary and sufficient conditions', to use the philosopher's jargon. You can define a thing — if you really need to define it — simply by giving examples, and adding, 'That kind of thing'.

There was no need to speculate about history or our cultural roots. The fact is that there are philosophical problems. Philosophers have given them names, like 'Freedom of the will', 'Knowledge and scepticism', 'The reality of time', 'The relation between mind and body'. You can only name what belongs to a common understanding, something you and I can share. As I had known all along, the same problems that gripped me were capable of gripping others, just as I had first studied those problems by reading the works of philosophers who were gripped by them.

History was of little or no importance because the problems were perennial. One didn't have to inquire about where they came from. It wasn't relevant to their solution. If I am genuinely worried about scepticism, or the mind-body problem, I'm not going to be impressed by someone telling me, 'You are only worrying about that problem because so-and-so thought of it first.'

But how do you present the problems so that people will be gripped by them? The standard text books didn't do a very good job, I felt. So I had the idea of writing science fiction stories. I called them 'thought experiments'. (The idea had been tried before, in a book by Miller and Smith called Thought Probes Prentice Hall, which used the work of famous science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Roger Zelazny and Frederik Pohl.) The stories were fun to write, and provided a perfect launch pad for the discussion of the problems of philosophy. My audience was soon hooked. (My weekly talks became the basis for the Pathways program The Possible World Machine.)

Towards the end of the course, the first cracks began to appear in the brightly coloured fresco. It had never been intended as a deceptive facade. We knew there were bricks underneath, but that was something we had chosen not to look into. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, my efforts to focus attention on the surface, some of the class members began to voice their anxiety. 'Why are we gripped by these problems? What is it about the human mind, or reason, that trips us up in this way?' I'd set out with the intention of deliberately turning my back on that sort of question. Now the question returned to ambush me.

I don't know of any works in the history of philosophy that come as close as Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations to attempting to answer the question where the perennial problems come from. According to Kant, the nature of reason leads it to attempt to overstep its finite limits. According to Wittgenstein, we fall into confusion because we misunderstand the logic of our own language. In the end, however, both explanations are unsatisfactory. One would be more impressed if the diagnoses offered of our philosophical ills led to a permanent cure, which evidently they have not.

I can imagine you saying at this point rather impatiently, 'Look, if you've found the problems of philosophy, you've found philosophy. What are you worrying about?' My reply is that it's not enough just to be gripped by the problems. The anxiety about why we are gripped points to something. Even if Kant and Wittgenstein failed to hit the nail on the head, that doesn't mean there isn't something there, at the centre of it all. — I still had no idea what that 'something' might be.

The trail had once more grown cold. I put the second jig-saw piece in my pocket and moved on. (Contd.)