26 November 1997
Thank you for your letter of 17 November. Thanks for your news: I guess as a trainee teacher you learn more from your experiences than could ever be taught in a class room.
Well, its 'going right down to the wire' (I think that's the expression) with the last three Pathways units to write in the four weeks before the Christmas holiday. The very first unit I wrote, back in August 1995, was on the Presocratic philosopher Thales who inaugurated a period of intense 'enthusiasm' (literally, a state of being inspired or possessed by the Gods) about the powers of human reason to uncover the hidden structure of the universe. The last, number 15 in the First Philosophers programme, looks at the sophist Gorgias' demonstration piece, 'On What is not', which in lampooning the arguments of the revered philosopher Parmenides effectively killed belief in the unbridled power of human 'logic'. (In Plato's dialogue Gorgias, Socrates launches a scathing attack on the hedonism espoused by Gorgias and his followers. In the Parmenides, Plato himself gives a dazzling display of the ability of pure logic to prove contradictory conclusions when applied to ultimate questions — which later of course became a model for Kant's 'Antinomies'.)
This all seems inevitable, yet right up to last week I wasn't sure what the last two units of the Greek programme were going to be about! Then, in a happy moment of inspiration, I realised what Protagoras meant by his doctrine, 'Man is the measure of all things':
Of all things a measure is man — of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not.
Jonathan Barnes The Presocratic Philosophers p. 541.
You should know the answer to this. Think about it!
Just this week I have enrolled two overseas students in the First Philosophers programme: a retired lady librarian from Stony Brook New York State, and a Miss Tsapara from Axioupoli in Greece. It must be fate lending a hand!
You seem to have grasped the central argument of unit 14. It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that anti-realism about truth should be put in the same boat as non-Kantian idealism or immaterialism in respect of rejecting a metaphysical 'correspondence'. In unit 15, the main thrust of the argument is that accepting a diagnosis of the error in immaterialist theories which is quite comfortable to our 'intuitions', we are also obliged to accept a rather less comfortable view about the nature of truth.
Regarding the two-world theory, I may have mentioned that the metaphysics programme was based on a series of lectures given over two terms, which I was invited to do after my book Naive Metaphysics was published. I think the Department expected me to base the lectures around the two-world theory, but I was determined to see how far I could pursue the issues that interested me while leaving the theory 'bracketed'. I think that I was largely successful. If you want to know what entitles the philosopher to make the move that is made in unit 15, the two-world theory supplies the answer. (Even now, though, I am not sure of the strength of that argument.)
It would be interesting to look at Piaget and Freud on the development of a non-egocentric view of the universe, and its connection with language and, perhaps equally important, the dynamics of the relationship between parent and child. Autism involves some kind of breakdown in the development of a non- egocentric view, as does the genesis of the 'psychopath' (or 'sociopath'), though as I understand it the aetiology and symptoms are rather different.
A quote from the moral philosophy programme which could just as easily been included in The Ultimate Nature of Things comes right at the beginning of the second volume of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation (E.F.J. Payne tr. Dover):
In endless space countless luminous spheres, round each of which some dozen smaller illuminated ones revolve, hot at the core and covered over with a hard cold crust; on this crust a mouldy film has produced living and knowing beings: this is empirical truth, the real, the world. Yet for a being who thinks, it is a precarious position to stand on one of those numberless spheres freely floating in boundless space, without knowing whence or whither, and to be only one of innumerable similar beings that throng, press, and toil, restelssly and rapidly arising and passing away in beginningless and endless time.
— Not much one can add to that!