Saturday, December 26, 2009

Where ignorance is bliss

On Fri, Dec 25, 2009 at 17:47:20
John asked this question:

If Philosophy is the study of wisdom then why is it studied by so few people?

Could it be that, 'Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise'?

Are there political reasons why wisdom should be avoided in the UK in particular?

The serious study of philosophy — as opposed to the recreational or dilettante reading of philosophy books — leads to a kind of understanding and knowledge which has gone under various names, one of which is 'wisdom', although for me the term is a bit too general to convey the special kind of wisdom derived from philosophy.

Who'd want to be wise? The unspoken premise of John's argument is that the wisdom to which the study of philosophy leads is a good thing, something which many persons would want, or are capable of wanting. But as John observes, relatively few actually seek it.

Why is that?

John offers two possible explanations. The first is one I have considered before. The kind of understanding which the philosopher seeks doesn't necessarily make you happy or content. Would you consider taking a course in philosophy if you suspected that it would disrupt your blissful existence? Maybe, maybe not. This is the famous conundrum considered by John Stuart Mill in his book Utilitarianism: Which would you prefer, to be a pig satisfied, or Socrates dissatisfied?

The second explanation, however, is more sinister. Could it be that the political establishment in the United Kingdom has a vested interest in stifling the academic study of philosophy? Last week Lord Mandelson, announcing cuts in UK government funding for universities urged universities to consider two-year rather than three-year degrees, and to offer degrees with a stronger vocational component. Recently, the Department of Philosophy at Liverpool University, where the highly respected Philos-L electronic list is based, narrowly escaped the threat of closure.

The justification for the threatened axe in Liverpool's case was that the Department despite an excellent teaching record failed to meet publication targets. Well, what do you expect if members of staff are encouraged to bury their heads in Augustine and Plotinus rather than pursue the latest exciting developments in cognitive studies and artificial intelligence?

It's a sorry state of affairs. But a sinister plot?

As I read John's question, there is a suggestion that the government prefers to see an electorate dumbed down with iPhones and Facebook. But then again, that's a charged levelled at capitalism generally. The UK is not unique.

There is something else. This country, which has produced great philosophers of the likes of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, has a strangely cool attitude to purely intellectual pursuits. Pursuit of knowledge or wisdom for its own sake is not a bad thing, provided that it is moderated by a healthy dose of common sense. The belief that it can be unhealthy to allow too much concentration on philosophy too young is reflected in the attitude of Oxford University which does not permit undergraduates to pursue a Philosophy as a single BA (you have to take it with Politics and Economics, or Physics, or Psychology and Physiology, or Classics).

I would seriously question the wisdom of pursuing a Philosophy as a single subject BA, especially in the present economic climate. What's the hurry? You will be a better philosopher if you take the time to acquire knowledge in other fields. Which reminds me: the motto of the Pathways PhiloSophos web site is,

Philosophy is for everyone and not just philosophers.

Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.

Yes, philosophy is for everyone. Not everyone has the taste to go into it that deeply. But even those that do, would benefit from combining their philosophical passion with more practical pursuits.

Who am I to say? For the last 14 years, I have supervised the studies of students taking courses at the Pathways School of Philosophy. The vast majority of my students have established careers — in areas as diverse as medicine, IT, business, scientific research, law. My students are highly knowledgeable and highly articulate — a far cry (I'm sorry to have to say) from the typical undergraduate who has gone straight from A-levels onto a BA course.

It is generally accepted that you can't acquire wisdom from study alone. Age and experience have their part to play. To be worldly, and to be knowledgeable about philosophy would be the ideal.

For me, however, it is something else. As I joke to my teenage daughters, 'I dropped out in 1970 and never dropped back in.' I don't own a car (can't afford one), don't go on holiday. I have one pair of shoes (black) because I can't see the point of owning more. I am interested in various things, guitar music, web design, computers, photography, but these are just distractions in between bouts of philosophizing. I don't have the taste for much else.

Would you want to be like me? Frankly, for most persons, the kind of life I lead is not one that I would recommend. It wouldn't be wise.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Vanity of vanities

On Sun, Dec 20, 2009 at 08:35:58
Roberto asked this question:

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 ones motivation and persistency? When reading philosophy clears the mind in that it provides simple and practical views which help in the manner one conducts himself, yet offering no real satisfaction because the more one reads the more one realizes there are worlds of questions without answers, that the only thing to be certain about is that nothing is certain, that the successful man awaits the same fate as the bum?

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

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

It amazes me that the priests, imams and rabbis 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 in the name of religion.

There is a time for argument, and a time for diatribe; a time for reflection and a time for action; a time to nourish the intellect, and a time to put down your books and defend free inquiry with all the weapons at your disposal. I say the time for action is now. Find a copy of the Bible and burn it. You will feel better afterwards, I guarantee. Or, if you can't find a Bible, find a preacher.

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

I would give qualified agreement to the oft-quoted statement, 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.' Vanity — poshlustis everywhere. That doesn't fully justify the conclusion, 'all is vanity' but it comes close, close enough so you'd hardly notice the difference — unless you had a mind tuned to notice small differences in meaning and what a big deal they make.

Looking at my profession — because it's something I know — I see professors labouring on the endless publication treadmill, obscure 50-somethings nourishing the hope that they still have time to make a name for themselves among their peers, or even earn a permanent place in the history of philosophy (what a laugh!). And what then? The same fate awaits the celebrated philosopher as awaits the bum.

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

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

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

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

'Why do you exist? What meaning does life have for you, Geoffrey?' 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 Stirner's stirring prose in The Ego and His Own.)

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

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

I know that I cannot die. I know this, for the same reason that Marcus Aurelius knew it: you can't lose what you don't have. The past is gone, water under the bridge, and the future is yet to be (or not, as the case may be).

Forget about death, forget about the quasi-metaphysical 'I-now'. Just think about your statement (or implied statement) 'nothing in this world has any real meaning'. 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 snow flake that just fell past my window; the intermingled sounds of my four ageing computers; the sickly-sweet taste of Diet Coke on my tongue; the fact that I am here, now, writing this answer just for you, Roberto.

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2009

The fear of death

On Wed, Dec 9, 2009 at 09:06:01
David asked this question:

Panic in the middle of sleeping. I freak out because I know that I could die in my sleep and I would have never known that there was such as thing as existence. The scariest part, the most frightening, the worst thing in the world, is that one day, maybe not in my sleep, it will happen.

I wonder about the last image of earth. I'm not religious, so I don't believe that I am going anywhere after death. I always find corners and odd places that people don't visit and think, What if this place was the last thing that I saw? What if the last thing that I witness during my short lifetime is a KFC bowl? What if I die at the DMV?

It doesn't matter really. There hasn't been proof positive of an afterlife, so realistically none of this matters. And you if believe that your memory continues through family and lineage, I'm sorry to bum you out but at some point existence/ space as we know it will fold in on itself taking everything with it. For some damned reason I always think about Bob Dylan when I think of everything disappearing. I think about how touching his lyrics are and in the end, it will be as if his voice, and those words never existed.

I try to force myself to not think about the end of existence, but it is creeping. Life is short. Life is so god damned short.

My girlfriend of many years has said that I am morbid. She can see my face change, and its usually during moments of happiness that I understand the cruelty of the gift of consciousness. It is other people's lives that depress me even more than my own. To look upon a face of a someone you love and know that they are destined for the graveyard is an adult harsh realization.

I wish that we were all going to another place afterwards. I wish that we could all share a drink when we get there, but there is no escaping it.

David's articulate question has prompted me to think again about my views on the fear of death (see my 1993 paper Is it Rational to Fear Death?). I said then:

Whether logical thinking is capable of altering one's attitude to death is a test — perhaps the ultimate test — of the practical relevance of philosophy.

But is that all the philosopher is called upon to do: think logically about the topic in question? I'm recalling Lou Salomé's remark about Nietzsche, the first modern psychologist: 'The will of the times transformed the exactitude of logic into a psychology with its own exactitude' (quoted in Matthew Del Nevo 'Lou Salome and Nietzsche' Philosophy Pathways Issue 148).

Salome, who went on to inspire Freud at the very beginning of his explorations in psychoanalysis, is talking about something that Nietzsche achieved, in his writing, which we recognize today as bearing the hallmark of the psychodynamic method; the relentless and exact exploration of human motivation and feelings, our acknowledged and unacknowledged sense of who and what we are.

I'm not qualified to do that. Actually, I don't want to know too much about what goes on 'down there', not out of fear but rather the sneaking suspicion that, like so much else in the wide world of knowledge, once you see the facts for what they are, all you can say (in the words of the Lieber and Stoller song) is, 'Is that all there is?'

Is that all there is — to my subconscious? I'd rather not know. (Or, if you insist, tell me later.)

Freud had much to say about the fear of death (read Freud's later writings, or, possibly better, Norman O. Brown's blockbuster Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History 1959). Enough to convince me (if I hadn't already been convinced) not to take the 'fear of death' at face value.

From a logical perspective, death isn't like the things we fear, such as necrotizing fasciitis or funnelweb spiders. We fear these things, in part, because they are deadly. Death isn't 'deadly'. Death is death. But that's just a tautology. It says nothing. Epicurus has the perfect retort to someone who fears the approach of death: 'Where I am death is not; where death is, I am not.' Death isn't like a funnelweb spider; it doesn't 'sting'.

But I suspect David knows, or half-knows this. What keeps him awake at night is not so much the fearful thought that 'death may happen', as the realization of human finitude: the eternal nothingness that exists beyond my life, beyond human history, beyond the history of the universe.

There are various logical responses to this, some of which I explored in my paper:

You wouldn't want to live forever. Bernard Williams in his article, 'Reflections on the Makropoulos Case' (Problems of the Self 1973) offers a brilliant exposition of the main theme of Carel Capek's play (also known as The Makropoulos Affair), depicting the unbearable tedium of immortality. The 1992 film comedy Death Becomes Her (Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn) mercilessly pulls apart our naive and sentimental views about 'living forever' (although in this case, with bodies that can be worn and damaged, the result is more like a living death).

Suppose you die, and then in David's words, you 'go for a drink afterwards'. After the drink, then what? More life, then another drink (or two)? Wouldn't you run out of things to do? Repeated ad infinitum, wouldn't every conceivable human activity eventually become a total bore?

There's a kind of cheating answer to this: as life goes on, imagine that your memories fade further into the distance and eventually disappear. By the time you come round to learning how to water ski for the 88th time, you have forgotten the 87 times you learned to water ski in the past.

The problem with this is that there are some memories we just want to lose. To let go of these is to lose a part of you. It's a kind of death, only a death encroaching from behind, a death that perpetually stalks you as you live. But, at least, there would never come a point where you had to face death. Is that enough? I'm not sure it is.

The very fact that you have lived is an eternal fact. We can say the same of the universe itself: the fact that the universe has existed, is an eternal fact. (This idea is explored eloquently in Richard Schain's article, 'The Pointillist Canvas of Eternity' Philosophy Pathways Issue 79). In a similar vein, Wittgenstein remarks in the Tractatus, 'If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present' (6.4311). Nietzsche's doctrine of the 'eternal recurrence' (beautifully expounded at the end of the 2001 film K-Pax, by Kevin Spacey as the alien visitor K-Pax) offers a materialistic reading of the same metaphysical theme: you will live the same finite life over and over, and all your joys and sorrows, your triumphs as well as your disastrous mistakes, will be repeated ad infinitum.

But I suspect that David will not find these metaphysical or quasi-metaphysical thoughts reassuring. I don't.

Even less reassuring is my contribution to the debate:

My subjective world, as a reality constituted by its own appearance, only appears to continue; and that appearance itself is something which neither 'continues' nor 'fails to continue', for in itself it is nothing. My subjective world can never die, can never cease to continue, for with every new moment it is as if it had never existed, and will continue no longer than that very moment.

(Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds p.120).

As I remark, in Glass House Philosopher Notebook 2, Page 72, Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations expresses the same thought but more concretely:

Even if you're going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you're living now, or live another one more than the one you're losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can't lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don't have?

(Marcus Aurelius Meditations Gregory Hays tr. London: Phoenix 2004)

Problem is, this only works (if at all, a big 'if') on the assumption that your worry is simply about losing your life. Aurelius' remark has no effect on the problem of human finitude as such, or indeed the finitude of the universe.

That just about exhausts the logical responses. It was the death of my mother in 1991 that first prompted me to explore the question of the fear of death. That was the first time I really became aware that I was going to die, that death wasn't just some abstract concept. My father died in 1998. My wife died earlier this year, in March. With June's death I feel in a strange way that I have been finally set free.

I suspect that the real answer to David's question, if there is one, must come from psychology. The fearful idea that eventually we will lose not only our own selves but the universe and all values that have ever existed is an abstract representation of the infant's fear of loss — the infant in all of us. That's why some find religion so comforting. For those, like David, like myself, who must live without the consolations of religion there is no simple remedy. But sometimes the passage of time itself supplies the cure.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Nietzsche: If truth be a woman

On Sat, Dec 5, 2009 at 10:48:31
Tev asked this question:

To what does Nietzsche compare truth, and what is the meaning of his comparison?

On Fri, Nov 6, 2009 at 06:09:58
Malcolm asked this question:

Why is Nietzche open to so many interpretations or misinterpretations?

This takes me back. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a cafe opposite the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, London in 1982. Each table had an inlaid chess board, but I hadn't come to play chess. In my coat pocket was a newly purchased copy of Walter Kaufmann's translation of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. A month or two before, I had been awarded my D.Phil. And I hadn't even read Nietzsche. What an admission!

I opened the chubby paperback at the Preface, and this is what I read:

Supposing truth is a woman — what then? Are there not grounds for the suspicion that all philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, have been very inexpert about women? That the gruesome seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness with which they have usually approached truth so far have been awkward and very improper methods for winning a woman's heart? What is certain is that she has not allowed herself to be won — and today every kind of dogmatism is left standing dispirited and discouraged. If it is left standing at all! For there are scoffers who claim that it has fallen, that all dogmatism lies on the ground — even more, that all dogmatism is dying.

Speaking seriously, there are good reasons why all philosophical dogmatizing, however solemn and definitive its airs used to be, may nevertheless have been no more than a noble childishness and tyronism. And perhaps the time is at hand when it will be comprehended again and again how little used to be sufficient to furnish the cornerstone for such sublime and unconditional philosophers' edifices as the dogmatists have built so far: any old popular superstition from time immemorial (like the soul superstition which, in the form of the subject and ego superstition, has not even yet ceased to do mischief); some play on words perhaps, a seduction by grammar, or an audacious generalization of very narrow, very personal, very human, all too human facts.

(F. Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil W. Kaufmann Tr., Preface)

This was incredible. Nietzsche was talking to me, he had written this for me. A hundred years separated us, yet here he was sitting at my table, fixing me with his glassy eyed stare.

My thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning was a critique of the 'realism vs. anti-realism' debate in the philosophy of language, focusing on what I termed the 'ego illusion' and the 'truth illusion'. I agreed with Michael Dummett — and Kant, and (as it turned out) Nietzsche — that there is no 'direct route' to metaphysical knowledge as the dogmatists, or 'transcendent metaphysicians' believed.

But I was equally sceptical of the analytic philosopher's attempt to distil metaphysical conclusions from the analysis of language, or, in Dummett's terms, 'an account of the form of a theory of meaning'. To me, that was just another form of dogmatism.

Philosophers are never so happy as when they have a 'method' for solving a problem. I suppose the equivalent in seduction techniques would be the kind of book you see advertised on the internet, 'Six fail-safe methods for winning a woman.' (I mean, if they are fail-safe, why do you need six? Wouldn't one be enough?)

My hero was a philosopher of an altogether different calibre, Wittgenstein, who understood well what it was like to 'try to untangle a spider's web with one's fingers', that the only way to make real progress is through patient philosophical therapy applied to the various things we are tempted to say, that turn out to be so much nonsense. Or what I called, rather crudely and impatiently, 'negative dialectic'.

The irony is that Dummett's arguments for an 'anti-realist theory of meaning' were, so he claimed, inspired by Wittgenstein's account of 'meaning as use'. Well, you've got to try, haven't you?

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein are masters of a philosophical style which has become known as indirect discourse. To pull this off, you need special literary gifts, as well as a finely tuned sense of irony. These are philosophers who deliberately risk being misunderstood, because correcting your misunderstanding is a necessary part of the learning process. (I can understand, though I don't altogether agree with the view that there is more real philosophy going on in English departments these days.)

The question is, putting aside the rhetoric, is there such a thing as truth in philosophy? Is truth something which philosophers can attain if we give up brute force and heroic full frontal assaults, and become seducers (Kierkegaard's term) teasing out the truth with tact and patience?

But that's forgetting that Nietzsche is an ironist, and he is being ironic in this passage. The similarity to Kant's description of Metaphysics, in the Preface to the 1st Edition of Critique of Pure Reason, as erstwhile 'Queen of the Sciences' now a 'matron outcast', is too obvious. Nietzsche is 'doing a Kant', and he's doing it tongue in cheek. There will be no grand critique, no systematic drawing of the limits of human reason, no method.

But will there be truth? Did Nietzsche, tragically unsuccessful in his attempt to woo the only woman to capture his heart, Lou Salomé (see Matthew Del Nevo, 'Lou Salomé and Nietzsche' in Philosophy Pathways Issue 148) seriously think he was up to the task of attaining truth? Or is he trying to tell us that the very idea of 'pursuing the truth' as philosophers have thought of themselves as doing, is in some sense absurd?

Nietzsche is no mere relativist. He saw nihilism as the greatest threat. Yet the last thing he would have claimed is to have discovered 'the truth'. Each time you circle round the problem, you tease out different aspects, gain new perspectives. And this process is itself done for a purpose, that is to say, ultimately a practical purpose. To know 'the truth' as such is not, for Nietzsche, a credible or even intelligible aim for the philosopher.

In his 1880's Notebooks, published posthumously as The Will to Power, Nietzsche states more than once, 'There are no facts, only interpretations.' With this, you can seemingly get away with saying anything. 'I'm not stating my view as a fact, just an (or my) interpretation!' Is the interpretation meant to be valid? or merely a subjective report on the way you happen to see things? Anyone who has read Nietzsche and felt the urge to say, 'Yes!' to an insight or observation would find it disconcerting, at best, to be told that the thing they said 'yes' to wasn't meant to be true.

There are many truths, many partial interpretations, like pieces of a jig-saw. As with a partially assembled jig-saw, you kind-of get to see the big picture, but it is ambiguous, like the 'duck-rabbit' illusion. One moment, you see it this way, then you see it that way. But there is still something to see. Nietzsche evidently thought so. He was gripped by the urge to communicate his vision. The last thing Nietzsche wanted was for his readers to give up on truth.

Some time in the late 80's, I stopped thinking of the thing I'd called in my thesis the 'ego illusion' as an illusion. If something is an illusion, that implies a way of seeing things from a non-illuded perspective. But in the case of 'I', that can never be (unless you are God, but then, as I argue in Naive Metaphysics, God can't see the 'I-ness of I' either). I don't even know if it's true to say that I changed my mind. Am I just looking at things from a different viewpoint? Do I now have the truth? Was my previous view false, or only partially true? — I found another jig-saw piece, that's all.