Friday, October 30, 2009

The egocentric predicament


On Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 21:56:52
Sherrie asked this question:

What is the nature and meaning of the egocentric predicament?

I ought to try to answer Sherrie's question, as this is what my book Naive Metaphysics is largely about. The phrase 'the egocentric predicament' was used by Bertrand Russell. It belongs to another age, when 'realists' battled it out with 'idealists', and the theory of knowledge was conceived along the lines laid out by Descartes in his Meditations: How can I pass from knowledge of my existence and my mental states, to knowledge of things or subjects of experience, outside me?

In his hostile reception of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Russell accused his former pupil of giving up 'serious' philosophy. Wittgenstein's theory of 'meaning as use' failed to address the egocentric predicament. It was as if Wittgenstein couldn't see any problem about our knowledge of an external world or how it is that human beings are able to communicate with one another. In My Philosophical Development Russell remarks dryly, 'We are now told that it is not the world that we are to try to understand but only sentences.'

On this occasion, Russell was wrong.

The key argument of Wittgenstein's that Russell failed to grasp is the argument against the possibility of a private language. To show this, I will recast the argument in terms of our 'understanding of the world'. But I also want to argue that Russell was right about there being an egocentric predicament, even though he misconceived it. Valid and important though it may be, Wittgenstein's argument merely serves to sharpen the sense of paradox of there being an 'I' in relation to a world, which is at the very same time an entity in the world.

The private language argument takes the form of a reductio ad absurdum. In other words, we will start with a proposition which we seek to disprove, in order to deduce consequences which are patently absurd. As Wittgenstein succinctly explains, 'My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense' (Philosophical Investigations Para. 464).

From my Cartesian 'egocentric' standpoint, I don't know anything about the world, other than what is given to me. That there is a 'world' outside me is something that has to be proved. In that case I can bracket all my former beliefs and opinions. I don't know that the Earth exists. I don't know that I am sitting at a computer, writing these words. I don't know that I have a physical body. All I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that I am experiencing now.

But do I know this? What is it to 'know' something? What is the absolute basic minimum needed for knowledge? Wittgenstein's answer is: you need a means of representation, a 'language'. So long as I concentrate on this, on that which is present to my mind, without trying to describe it in any way, I do not know it. If I try to say what I know, all I can say is THIS, or point, speechlessly. (If you're into meditation, you might thing that 'this' is a very important piece of 'knowledge' — but that's just a dispute about semantics, because no factual proposition follows from this.)

'No problem,' says the Cartesian. 'It's quite apparent to me that the contents of my subjective experience have variegated properties, such as colour or shape, or sound, or smell.' OK, then, give us an example. 'I see a patch of blue now.'

I am staring up at a clear blue sky. Even if there is no Earth, no sky, no physical matter I know with absolute certainty that there is this blue.

Wittgenstein has a simple question which shatters that certainty: 'How do you know the meaning that the term, 'blue' has for you?' Remember, I am only going on what I know, I am not allowed to make any assumptions of any kind. As a term in my 'private language', the word 'blue' must have a meaning. It denotes areas of my visual field which have this colour. — What colour is that, exactly? 'Blue, of course!'

What kind of fact is the fact that I call this blue? Well, I just did. It's blue. And now I have just done it again. The sky (or, rather, the patch in my visual field) hasn't changed colour. It's still the same colour, blue. — But how do I know that?

I don't. This is where Wittgenstein drops his hand grenade:

Always get rid of the idea of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you.
(Philosophical Investigations Part II, p.207)

You don't think that this is much of a hand grenade? You don't get it?

I've chosen the quote because it's all Wittgenstein needs; the rest is just heuristics. We are talking about knowledge, and I can only say what I know. I don't know that my 'private object', the visual patch, is not constantly changing, so that each time I say or write the word 'blue' I am describing a different colour. The meaning I gave to the word 'blue' is a second private object; maybe that's changing too. If I don't know either of these things, then on the assumption that 'all I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that I am experiencing now', I don't know anything. Q.E.D.

Cast in this mode, the argument is one which Russell was familiar with. It's a point he made himself: When consistently thought through, solipsism, the belief that only I and my mental states exist, retreats to 'solipsism of the present moment'. All Wittgenstein's private language argument does is deliver the final coup de grace. In the present moment, there is nothing to 'know', nothing but the wordless this.

Now comes the constructive part of Wittgenstein's investigation, the part that left Russell bemused. In order for there to be a language in which I can express knowledge about the world, the meanings of the words I use cannot be up to me. The language I use is one that I learned, from other language users, and if other language users must exist, in order for me to know anything at all, then I must know a lot more than I thought I did when I conceived of myself being in an 'egocentric predicament'.

My response? I agree up to this point. But in recasting Wittgenstein's argument against a private language, I gave a hostage to fortune. I conceded one very small but significant point: that there is this. Of course, the statement I have just made is nonsense. I'm trying to say what cannot be said ('and you can't whistle it either' was C.D. Broad's pithy comment on the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein claimed that there are things that 'cannot be said but can only be shown').

To say that there is this puts me in the picture. From my subjective standpoint, I am more than just 'an other to others who are other to me'. It's a point noted by Thomas Nagel in his book The View From Nowhere. The statement, 'I am GK' states a fact, but in the sense that I mean it — or seem to mean it — is a fact only for me.

One reviewer of an earlier version of Naive Metaphysics alluded to an underlying theme of 'the metaphysics of presence' — Derrida's memorable phrase. Well, I'm not afraid of Derrida. But here's a less metaphysically loaded way to express the point: Someone is grappling with the egocentric predicament and seeking to refute it, or escape from it; someone is deploying the private language argument against Cartesian epistemology. And that someone is me. I am the one asking the question.

There, stripped of its metaphysical trappings, is what the egocentric predicament is really about. When you do philosophy, you are gripped by a question and you try to answer it. Each person must do this for him- or herself, because philosophy is ultimately about making sense of my world, or (what amounts to the same thing) my place in relation to the world of others. That's what makes philosophy different from all other forms of knowledge.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Poshlust and moral incontinence


On Fri, Oct 23, 2009 at 19:33:17
Dave asked this question:

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

The Russian word Poshlust is notoriously difficult to translate. To deploy the term 'poshlust' against a person or object implies that one is seeking unmask something — a work of art, a piece of writing — which makes false claims to depth or profundity, kitsch which loudly professes that it is not kitsch but the 'real thing'. Evidently, what is or is not '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. — As indeed could this answer to a more critical eye.

That is not exactly what Dave is talking about. But I can see a tenuous connection between Dave's concerns and the question of self-knowledge and unmasking, in relation to the phenomenon of poshlust.

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics wrangled with a problem which he inherited from Socrates: the doctrine that 'no-one does wrong knowingly'. Sometimes we do things we 'know' are wrong, but somehow that knowledge doesn't help us. We hear the voice of conscience but we disobey it. Aristotle called this akrasia, which one would translate as 'weakness of the will' or 'moral incontinence'.

On any objective view of ethics, moral incontinence is a challenging paradox: if you believe that there is such a thing as objective moral knowledge which is logically sufficient for action, and if ethical considerations by definition trump all other considerations, then how can you fail to do the ethical thing, if you know what it is?

However, what Dave has described doesn't exactly fit the description of moral incontinence either. If through weakness of will you fail again and again, then you must surely reach the point where you know yourself too well. It's pointless even considering the ethics of the situation, if you know that you are never going to do what ethics demands.

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

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

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

— Is the description I have just given coherent? That would be one philosophical take.

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

Many's the time we are made to feel ashamed — by other persons, or by society — when we ought not to feel ashamed. That's ultimately what is so hateful about the 'voice of conscience' idea. Many's the time that the voice of conscience lies. For Nietzsche, by contrast, the overriding imperative is, 'Do not make others ashamed.' It's the worse thing you can do. Taking advantage of the moral high ground, making others ashamed, is 'slave morality'.

In the case of liking things your intellect tells you you oughtn't to like, for example seeing through the pretensions of a pretentious movie but enjoying it anyway, who is right: you or your intellect? I can see room for an argument here along the lines that we have a moral duty to ourselves not to coarsen our aesthetic sense through over-indulgence, and that there are various points along the path where you do have the choice. The problem is, that I find nearly all examples of people who habitually seek to avoid 'coarsening' themselves, pre-eminent examples the very thing they despise. (Stuck-up prigs. There's nothing so despicable as a person parading their hypertrophied 'aesthetic sense' or 'moral conscience'.)

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

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

I have a theory that Russian intellectual life is afflicted by chronic bad conscience, which will take many generations to dissolve. Under the Communists, 'intellectuals' and 'philosophers' (so-called) debated apparently weighty problems, all the time aware of the vast weight of censorship bearing down upon them, silencing any genuinely significant idea. They pretended concern for the pursuit of truth while all the time hopelessly mired in lies. (All the more remarkable, then, that a few great intellects did succeed in making a mark. See Dmitry Olshansky's Gallery of Russian Thinkers.)

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

I guess what I'm working up to is the thought that we are all more or less struggling in a moral miasma. There are times when you can do the right thing and times when you can't, or won't. Just as there are things you know you oughtn't to like but you do anyway. We all have our guilty pleasures. Or as Christ is reported to have said, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.'

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The benefits of war


On Sun, Sept 13, 2009 at 08:18:57
Marcin asked this question:

What are the benefits of war?

'War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen.'

Heraclitus (Diels Kranz 22B Fragment 53)

'War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!'

Edwin Star (Song written for The Temptations by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong)

While pondering this, you might look at the online version of Wilfrid Owen's famous war poem Dulce et Decorum Est (referenced in my answer to Ray).

Here's the last verse, which states Owen's concise case against the view that 'it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country'. Owen is describing a British infantryman who has become victim to a poison gas attack:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Edwin Starr argues his case on two fronts: the sheer horror of violent death, and also the loss of innocent lives:

War! I despise
'Cos it means destruction of innocent lives.
War means tears to thousands of mothers eyes
When their sons gone to fight and lose their lives.

Searching the internet, I found lots of pages quoting the fragment from Heraclitus, but nowhere did I find any attempt to explain the meaning of his words. It may not be immediately obvious, but he is stating a case too.

There is a view that Heraclitus isn't talking about war as such, but merely re-iterating the fundamental principle of his metaphysics, that the universe is held together through the conflict of opposites. In other words, reference to 'war' is merely metaphorical. Anyone who thinks this hasn't bothered to consider what Heraclitus actually says:

1. War is the 'king' or 'father' of all. Everything that exists comes from war. Here, he is talking about 'war' in the metaphysical sense, as well as the literal sense. Everything we know, the entire universe, is a product of eternal tension or conflict. But it is also true in the literal sense that the life we live now is a product of wars and battles past. Human history without war would be unthinkable. From what he goes on to say, Heraclitus is clearly aware of the double meaning of his words.

2. War 'manifests' some as 'gods' and some as 'men'. One could read this as stating that the Gods on Mount Olympus, no less than the human beings who populate the earth, are the product of the eternal metaphysical tension between opposites. However, Heraclitus is also stating literally what it is that war reveals. War gives men the opportunity to be heroes, to be 'gods amongst men'.

3. War makes some men 'slaves' and some 'freemen'. One could stretch a point and argue that men are 'free' so long as they have knowledge of the Logos, the law which governs all change. But freedom and slavery is also literally what war is about. Von Clausewitz famously remarked, 'War is a continuation of diplomacy by other means'. The threat of war offers the vital incentive in a negotiation. Execution of that threat is an attempt to achieve the conclusion you want by force. In other words, the possibility of war is the permanent undercurrent of peaceful diplomacy. In modern warfare, the winning side no longer take slaves. Yet for the losing side, surrender means a loss of freedom: you have to agree unconditionally to the victor's terms.

I would like to take a dispassionate view of the arguments, such as they are. Ideologically, I'm neither a hawk nor a dove. But I am gripped by the question of war as a challenge to the very notion of who I am or what life is about.

Is there anything that I would be prepared to fight or risk death for? If not, what does that say about me?

It is never necessary to fight. Faced with the threat of deadly force, you always have to option to offer passive resistance, as Ghandi showed when he stood up, unarmed, against the guns of the British Army. No-one doubts that this was an act of great heroism. More than that, Ghandi was fully aware that the greater battle was for hearts and minds. Passive resistance was a weapon in that war. The cost of employing that weapon was death for many of his supporters. In the end, Ghandi was victorious.

Ghandi also argued, notoriously, that the British should use the same strategy against Hitler. All evil empires eventually fall. To take this lofty historical view, however, is arguably even more callous than the British generals who ordered their troops to march at a steady pace towards the German machine guns on the battlefields of the Somme, where they were mown down in waves like wheat at harvest time.

Wilfrid Owen appeals to horror, as his main argument against war. The Spartan hoplites, for whom nothing was more desirable than a 'good death' knew that the reality of death at the point of a spear or a sword — to lie for hours freezing on a battlefield, disemboweled, as your life blood ebbs away — is no less horrific than the horrors Owen describes. Owen's bitter words were for the folks at home who saw the Great War through a misty romantic haze. The Americans who viewed the daily news footage from Vietnam on their TV sets were under no such illusions.

As one of my philosophy students from Northern Island once remarked, 'What is so bad about death?' On the contrary, isn't it good that you have something so valuable — your life — to wager as proof of your commitment to your highest beliefs and ideals? That's something Ghandi understood.

Yet as much as it is a soldier's duty to put oneself in the line of fire, it is also necessary to kill. And it is this, rather than the danger of being killed, which seems to me the most difficult issue. It is more than mere squeamishness which makes me recoil at the thought of causing death of any kind — let alone horrific death, or unavoidable innocent death. Your training gets you over that. I have no right to extinguish another life. But doesn't that mean I'm really no different from the Jain monks who take immense pains to avoid causing death to any living thing, even the insects under their feet?

Or, if, rejecting all forms of religious belief, there is nothing for me on this earth or in this universe that is holy, whence the reverence for human life?

Without death, war would just be a competition, a contest. If you wanted to avoid injury, you'd have to ban many sports. Death is the meaning of war. We have no comprehension of the meaning of death, or the meaning of war, so long as we lack a proper understanding of the value of life.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Origin of ethics and moral values


On Thur, Oct 1, 2009 at 15:12:36
Dian asked this question:

I've always enjoyed mulling over philosophical questions but I've run into a road block with this one. It concerns morals and ethics. Basically their origin: is there such a thing as absolute morality and what is the direction humankind is going when it comes to concepts of morality and ethics?

To approach the matter in the right philosophical frame, and honestly examine the origin of morals and ethics, I feel I have to first disengage myself from all the preconceptions I've picked up from my Judeo-Christian background to think clearly and without bias on the subject, focusing rather on general innate human predispositions. It seems paramount to me to place one's self in the position of being a human being rather then a believer or inheritor of a certain traditional mindset to truly understand the human condition.

But have I already become biased because I look at things from the position of being a secular humanist with existentialist leanings? How can I tell if I'm learning anything or only examining what I already think I know?


On Thur, Oct 8, 2009 at 18:40:09
Chris asked this question:

I'm one of those philosophy students in college who are prodded from time to time. It's unlikely this will be addressed in class so I ask it here:

Throughout our class studies thus far (the classicals, Aristotle, Plato, etc) and my limited private studies of more recent philosophers (such as Nietzsche) I have noticed an overlaying theme that Humanity is special. That we are either divinely inspired, logically superior to nature, or press forward on our personal development to a fixed collective goal.

What I've found scarce are resources regarding (or maybe there isn't any legitimacy in?) thoughts on the more 'scientific' approach, that we just happen to be really complex amoebas, we just have a brain, but it's still as predictable to the 'outside' observer as we can predict what a single celled organism will do in its life.

So the question is best summed up as this: Are Humans really doing anything spectacular with this philosophy thing, or would anything given our characteristics have ended up in the same place?


I have decided to answer Dian's and Chris's questions together, because they converge on a common theme: the idea that there is a naturalistic account of how human beings have developed ethical rules and moral values. By 'naturalistic' I mean an explanation which can be given from the 'outside' in Chris's sense, in terms of a broadly scientific understanding of what human beings are and how they have evolved.

If ethical rules and moral values can be explained in this way, then there it would be true to say that human beings are nothing special. We may be the most advanced organisms on this planet, as measured in terms of our neural capacity, but we share with all organisms the same tendency to prefer (or 'value') particular outcomes out of a range of available choices, based purely on our individual needs or inbuilt conditioning.

The question has become especially pressing for me, because of my increasing scepticism regarding the possibility of a metaphysical foundation for ethics, which I attempted in my book Naive Metaphysics. I don't think that the idea of a necessary link between the concepts of truth or reality and 'recognition of the other' is worthless, but I have come to realize that I seriously overvalued it.

Others exist, are 'real': so what? That bare recognition leaves me almost as free to do what I will as the psychopath or amoralist, given that I remain the final judge and jury on what I 'owe' to others, the extent to which recognition of their needs and interests bears on my conduct, if at all. In short, it depends on just how important I think I am in the overall scheme of things — no-one, neither any individual nor society, can dictate that to me. (A Max Stirner or an Aleister Crowley would have no difficulty with that thought.)

To answer Dian's question, I don't see that there is any problem of bias, if we take the secular humanist view as the default position. Surely, the onus is on the theologian to offer something better, explain why we are more than just a part of nature.

You might question how the issue of onus is decided. How come I'm so sure that the onus is not on those who question the 'Judeo-Christian' view? It isn't about numbers. I don't have to listen to any argument which is predicated on a belief, in the absence of sufficient justification for that belief. Nor will I accept Pascal's view that, given the stakes are so high, I ought at least to grant theism the benefit of the doubt. I don't scare so easily. (Russell once remarked that if he were ever to find himself at the gates of Heaven, he would tell God, 'You should have given me better reasons for believing in you!')

However, the debate over ethics is one which has thrived on false oppositions, the most blatant of which is, 'God or science?' To accept that human beings are ultimately part of nature does not commit one to Freudianism/ Kleinianism, or Marxism, or evolutionary ethics/ sociobiology, or Dawkins' memetics — or whatever is the popular theory of the moment for explaining the human sense of right and wrong.

Just as I won't accept God as an explanation, so neither do I need to accept any reductivist theory based on observation of my behaviour or human behaviour in general. But this is where things get tricky. Because I am all these things: each of the competing explanations potentially contains a fragment of the truth. If science has shown anything about what it is to be human, it shows that we do not know our own selves. Ideas which seem to spring from a miraculous creative power, in fact have a perfectly intelligible genetic explanation (as Freud showed so brilliantly). That's why, for me, the existentialist option is no less unacceptable.

Why are people courageous? why are they kind? or just? or honest? Why be moral? I think that the answer, in the end, does lie with philosophy. Not in some a priori proof why one 'ought' to embrace any of these values, but rather in the very capacity which philosophy gives us to see ourselves synoptically as part of an 'overall scheme of things'. That was Plato's and Aristotle's legacy to ethics.

Human evolution and culture have given us the ability, unique amongst the organisms that populate this planet, to engage in rational inquiry: for example, to consider questions about ends and not merely means to ends. (In McDowell's phrase, we inhabit the 'logical space of reasons' no less than the physical space of causes and effects.) But what that is, what it is to practice this ability is something one can only appreciate from within the 'form of life' of beings-who-philosophize.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Life in a well-oiled machine


On Mon, Oct 5, 2009 at 12:56:00
Ray asked this question:

What is the meaning of life? Is the world we live in not just a well oiled machine and we as a species are simply one gear in that machine? If this is so, wouldn't that mean our meaning or purpose would simply be, to BE. I have struggled with this one for a bit, maybe someone can keep me going on these thoughts?

You have a choice, Ray. You have the choice whether to be. So does the human race. It wouldn't be necessary to make the decision to kill ourselves, or even to allow the human race to die out as a result of nuclear war or ecological catastrophe. We could just choose not to procreate — as indeed can you.

A machine is constructed for a purpose, but if the universe is a mere machine then it has no particular purpose that we can fathom. Nor does the machine need human beings in order to function. When we go, we won't be missed. The stars and planets will continue to obey the laws of nature, flawlessly, however things turn out.

I gather from your question that you see no meaningful place for God or religion. Neither do I. But suppose one accepts the pragmatic view that some beliefs are more useful than others. Even the materialist, atheist Marx had to admit that religion, the 'opiate of the masses' was yet the 'heart in a heartless world'.

Marx isn't conceding that the human race is better off with religion than without it. What he means is that things are so bad for so many people — the downtrodden workers — that it would be too cruel to take religion from them as well.

Meanwhile, the world is indifferent as to whether you choose to be a revolutionary, or reactionary — or reluctantly or gladly or unthinkingly embrace the status quo. Life goes on regardless; your life goes on, or not, as the case may be.

Where's the meaning in that?

Bertrand Russell, in his 1902 essay 'A Free Man's Worship' (Mysticism and Logic London Unwin 1963) offers the following consolation for those who accept that their ultimate fate is be born, procreate and die:

The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things — this is emancipation, and this is the free man's worship.

'To think of them greatly.' To pursue truth, to appreciate beauty — if only the beauty offered by the tragic spectacle of human life and death — is all we have. That is why the free man rejects the false comforts of religion.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Russell wrote his essay just twelve years before the Great War. Amongst the 'great ideals' that he describes in such glowing terms are those of courage, duty and sacrifice, so brutally exploded in the trenches of the Somme and the war poems of Wilfred Owen. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

No, there is no meaning that I can discern. We have witnessed how bad things can get, and they could get still worse. But my view of this remains a cheerful one. Unlike Russell, I don't need high ideals, so long as there are questions that grip me, as yours does. Meaning is for 'true believers'. I just want the truth — as best as you, or I or anyone can discern it.

Maybe my optimism is misplaced. Maybe I still have illusions to shatter. In that case, as F.H. Bradley once remarked about pessimism (Appearance and Reality 1897, Preface), 'Where everything is bad, it must be good to know the worst.'

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Jobs for philosophers


On Thur, Oct 1, 2009 at 01:44:21
Jason asked this question:

What kind of job can you get with a philosophy degree? I'm studying philosophy as an option in an Arts and Contemporary science degree which is an equivalent to a philosophy degree, but I'm worried that having this on my resume won't really impress anybody. What are my options?

I'm having a second go at this question. Back in 2001, I answered a question from 16 year old Phil who candidly admitted, 'obviously I want to be the next modern day Plato or Aristotle, or wait — even better — Leonardo da Vinci.' Here's an extract from my answer, archived on the PhiloSophos site:

At a Freshers induction day for the Sheffield Philosophy Department, I was asked by young student just starting out on her BA degree what were the job prospects for philosophy graduates. 'I complete my degree, then what?' 'Then you sign on the dole!' (social security) I replied. This did not go down too well. I think she was expecting me to say, 'Then you get a job teaching philosophy, have a brilliant career, become famous and live happily ever after.' You will not be surprised to hear that I was not invited to any more induction days.

It wouldn't have been so bad, had our conversation not been overheard by a young woman from MIT who had recently joined the Sheffield teaching staff. She was outraged. How could I justify living off the state? A parasite financed by taxpayers hard-earned money? I said something to the effect that the tax payers were getting 'good value for their money' from unemployed philosophers who worked hard at what they did best. She replied coldly that people with jobs didn't have the choice whether or not to pay taxes.

Back in 1987, only three or four years before this incident occurred, I was unemployed, driven to the desperate expedient of putting up 'Philosopher for Hire' cards in the windows of local shops. Everyone deserves at least one lucky break in life. Mine was having a sharp-eyed reporter from the Sheffield Star notice my little advert. A week later, I was being interviewed and having my photograph taken. The article appeared under the headline, 'Philosopher in Bid to Hire Out His Talents'...

... And the rest is history.

For the sake of a reality check, here's a very different account, from an article published in The Guardian newspaper in 2007:

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show philosophy graduates, once derided as unemployable layabouts, are in growing demand from employers. The number of all graduates in full-time and part-time work six months after graduation has risen by 9% between 2002-03 and 2005-06; for philosophy graduates it has gone up by 13%.

It is in the fields of finance, property development, health, social work and the nebulous category of 'business' that those versed in Plato and Kant are most sought after. In 'business', property development, renting and research, 76% more philosophy graduates were employed in 2005-06 than in 2002-03. In health and social work, 9% more.

Just to reinforce the statistics, the Guardian article offers quotes from enthusiastic employers of Philosophy graduates. Here's one:

Fiona Czerniawska, director of the Management Consultancies Association's think tank, says: 'A philosophy degree has trained the individual's brain and given them the ability to provide management-consulting firms with the sort of skills that they require and clients demand. These skills can include the ability to be very analytical, provide clear and innovative thinking, and question assumptions.'

— Is that the sort of answer you're looking for, Jason?

From the Guardian perspective, the case for the employability of Philosophy graduates is all about transferable skills. The very same skill which you use to analyse an argument from Plato's Republic serves equally well in analysing a financial forecast or the pitch for a new ad campaign.

Analysing, criticising, thinking 'out of the box' are obviously very useful attributes. We should all strive to be useful members of society. That is what we are taught from an early age. And if society has a use for you, you will be rewarded. Isn't that it?

You might say that it is easy for me to indulge in scepticism, given that the majority of Pathways students have degrees or advanced degrees and/ or professional qualifications, and are in well-paid jobs. Yet I detect that some are not happy, and would much rather chuck it all in if they could. A lucky few — those who have made enough money to afford an early retirement — have the leisure to devote themselves full-time to philosophical study.

Philosophy gets you, that way. It makes you question assuptions, to be sure, but one of the assumptions that you will find yourself questioning is why you are so keen to 'impress people with my resume'.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't be interested in having the best possible resume. My question is what it would be good for. Let's assume that the better your resume, other things being equal, the more employable you are. You have a wider range of jobs available to you. For most people, this translates into opportunities for more highly paid jobs. But as a philosopher, or someone interested in philosophy, that is an assumption that cries out to be questioned. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but money isn't everything.

Of course, you can always go for the 'early retirement' scenario, if you are that good. On the panel of Ask a Philosopher is an Englishman who retired at 52, for the second time (he got bored after retiring in his early 30's). But you do have to be very good — or very lucky.

Of the two greatest Stoic philosophers, one was a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius) and the other a slave (Epictetus). Lacking the resources of an emperor, you don't have to opt for wage slavery. The kind of job a philosopher would look for (outside of the academic world, an option we are not even considering) is one that allows you time, and mental freedom, and pays enough to keep body and soul together. If you are also doing something that enables you to put your beliefs into practice — like working for Greenpeace, or for an organization helping the homeless or the unemployed — that's a bonus.

It is possible that after you get your BA degree you may feel no need or motivation to pursue your present interest in philosophy any further. That happens too. There's no shame in it. In that case, these words are not for you. But that's not something you know now. Taking the philosophy course option might deepen your interest. I hope it does.

There seems to me something very wrong with society. Our values are all screwed up. Materialism is rampant. But if you want to swim against the stream, be aware that it is not an easy option. As I have painfully discovered, you have to accept the pitying looks of those — they may be your family or your friends — who judge success by material possessions. It's your choice.