Monday, February 28, 2011

The fierce urgency of now

On Thur, Feb 24, 2011 at 17:12:01
Brian asked this question:

President Obama used the phrase 'the fierce urgency of now'. I understand 'now' likely functions rhetorically as being current times. However, can the now be urgent? The present is the present.

My first reaction to this question was, 'How typically Obama, to over-egg the pudding. What could be stronger, rhetorically, than 'the urgency of now'? Why does the urgency have to be 'fierce'? 'Urgency' is already an urgent word. Then I saw the U-Tube clip Senator Obama on the stump in Milwaukee MI on 15 February 2008 and caught the attribution to 'Dr King'.

Here is the original quote, from Dr Martin Luther King's famous 'I have a dream' speech, delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

Whoever has transcribed the speech has taken care to capitalize the word 'Now'. When Dr King spoke, his audience didn't need persuading that this was a truly momentous time, a turning point in American history. This was a time over which battles had been fought and were continuing to be fought, a time for anger, heroism, and fierce resolve. The words are apposite.

That doesn't get Obama off the hook. Obama offers as an example of why now is so fiercely urgent — while the audience of supporters and party workers wildly cheer him on — the fact that 'people... have never paid more for gas at the pumps'. One feels there ought to be a law against this kind of thing. A historical and literary treasure, studied in schools up and down the land, pillaged for sound bites!

No matter. I'm not taking into account the wider context, American politics, where theatricality and going over the top is part of the hallowed tradition. Overlooking the banal example (chosen for 'ordinary folks'), maybe it did seem to those caught up in the emotion of the hustings that this was a 'defining moment in American history', even though such defining moments seem to occur rather more frequently than a defining moment ought to do.

OK, but what's this got to do with philosophy? I picked Brian's question because it has a strong resonance for me. There is an issue about now which admittedly has nothing to do with the question whether this particular time has any special historical significance. Every now is urgent, at the time when we consider it. This very moment, as I tap the keys on my computer keyboard and watch these words appear on the screen, is a unique time, the time that I have reached in 60 years of life on this planet. The rest of my life begins now.

I have wrestled with this question for as long as I have had an interest in philosophy, and that's two thirds of my life.

Paradoxically, the very fact that you have singled out one particular now amongst all the nows you could have singled out, already gives it a special significance, regardless of external considerations. We fill our minutes, hours and days with activity, we don't notice the perpetual birth and death of each individual now. Yet if you just stop to reflect, just for one moment, the train crashes to halt. This time is unique, and special, as no other time in the history of the universe could possibly be.

There is an existential resonance. I can change the entire course of my life — if I choose to, now. Maybe that's part of it?

The technical term for the property which the word 'now' has, which it shares with terms such as 'this', 'that', 'he', 'she', 'I', 'you', 'here', 'there' is indexicality. An indexical expression derives an essential part of its meaning from the actual circumstances of utterance. 'Now' refers to the time of utterance. These circumstances resist definition in general terms. It is generally agreed that natural language could not function without indexical expressions, even though it is possible to replace particular occurrences of indexicals with a non-indexical description.

The semantics for indexical expressions is an issue in the philosophy of language. We need indexicals, yet there are some quite tricky issues to resolve if one is seeking to give a systematic account of how these expressions are used, as part of a theory of meaning for natural language. However, what the various theories of indexicals have in common is a form of generalization which applies to all 'thises', all 'nows' etc. That's what makes it a theory. The individual cases, actual examples of the use of 'this' or 'now', are its 'theorems'.

What this all boils down to is that there is no possible way in which I could express in words the 'specialness' or 'uniqueness' of now which doesn't automatically translate into an explanation of why every 'now' is unique and special. Or, equivalently, why leaving aside contingent historical circumstances, no now is either unique, or special. As I state laconically in Ch.18 of Naive Metaphysics, 'Every time gets its turn to be now.'

Brian concedes that a tautology can sometimes serve a rhetorical purpose. Wittgenstein comments in an often-quoted passage, ''War is war' is not an example of the law of identity, either' (Philosophical Investigations p.221). What is meant by the remark, 'War is war' is something like, 'What do you expect? In war, innocent people die.' When your boss says, 'Now is now' in that particular urgent tone of voice, what he means is, 'I want you to do the task I set you now, not in half-an-hour's time!'

Typing these words, I think of the number of times I have looked at this question and not made one inch of progress. I feel I know that of all the times that have been or will be, this time, now, is different and yet nothing I can say suffices to convey that difference. 'What you can't say, you can't say, and you can't whistle it either' (Frank Ramsay, commenting on the last paragraph of Wittgenstein's Tractatus — the allusion is to Wittgenstein's skill at whistling entire concertos, note perfect). In half an hour's time, reading these words back, the metaphysical urgency will no longer be there. What I referred to as 'now' will be merely 'then', one of many nows that I have threaded my way through as I progress through my life, like so many beads on a string.

When I started composing my answer to Brian, just for a moment I thought, or imagined, that it was possible that this time will be different, this time I will succeed in thinking something about nowness of now that I have never thought before. I haven't. I didn't. It all comes back to the same thing. I don't see this as a defeat, but rather as assertion of my vigilance as a metaphysically minded philosopher. There are certain problems, certain questions — and this is one of them — which you must never let go of. It's part of experiencing the wonder.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rewiring the brain

On Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 04:31:24
Robert asked this question:

Are there some key mental/ psychological characteristics of those who enter the study of philosophy? Meaning, are there internal mental phenomena that occur in the psyche of those who first enter into studying philosophy (and who can actually grasp and internalize the material)?

Do people have parallel experiences of mental phenomena during their initial exposure to philosophy? Can one almost detect their own mental rewiring and the side effects of that wiring?

Are there time periods where people, who are studying philosophy, actually balance between two world views and the result of which is the inability to function normally? Can studying philosophy trigger underlying psychological problems? Can philosophy bring about ones propensity for schizophrenia for example?

Robert's question follows on naturally from my answer to Nastik last week. It is interesting that over 15 years of running Pathways to Philosophy I have gathered a lot of data on how students react to the challenge of philosophy, how it changes the way they think, how it changes them. And yet, I have comparatively little idea about how all this feels on the inside. Here's a telling response to my post last week on Philosophy as process from one of my more articulate students:

Yes to pleasure — the occasional experience of exhilaration, the aah moments, but more often pain, not to mention F*** it, I give up! Yes to mental gym, and the work-out is more demanding than I'd ever have imagined. And emphatically yes to wanting to know the answers — but in my case knowing that I, lacking the necessary equipment, will never be able to work any of them out myself. I'm glad you have your sense of being in the presence of the sublime — I don't know how you could carry on otherwise.

The vast majority of my students are different from me in one important respect, typified by this example. The most impressive thing, for the beginner, is the sheer difficulty of the subject. And one of the early decisions that one makes is that one is aiming for self-enrichment and self-improvement — and pleasure, to be sure — but not to become a philosopher. So, yes, you have to 'grasp and internalize the material' if you are to make any progress. But there is a cut-off point. You recognize your limits, and accept this as a fact. Then you can relax and drink at the deep well of philosophy and feel refreshed.

I realize that this might sound rather elitist. But I am talking about philosophy as a life choice. Apart from professional philosophers (not all of whom I would describe as 'philosophers' in the sense I mean), I don't get a lot of opportunity to talk to people who feel this way, who have made this life choice, who see the designation 'philosopher' as closest to what they truly are, or at least strive to be. Most of my students have successful careers in other fields. They are intelligent, inquiring, but they are happy to remain students of philosophy. They know their limits and stick to them.

What this boils down to is that in answering Robert's question I really only have myself to go on.

The human brain is versatile. You can develop your interests in a wide variety of ways — requiring very different ways of thinking — and not feel any great sense of strain. I have experienced this for myself. I like computers, I like photography, I like designing web sites, I like music. I used to like chess until I realized that I was so bad at it, that there was no point in pursuing that particular interest (although I still occasionally play against the computer when I'm feeling in a sufficiently masochistic mood).

It has been hypothesized that maybe this has something to do with the fact that there are two hemispheres of the brain with (to some extent) specialized functioning. I'm a rather peculiar case, in that in that I can only read comfortably with my left eye (my right eye is 'lazy') which means that information gathered from reading gets routed through the 'wrong' side (the right hemisphere). I would love to see a scientific study of this. It might explain why I have such immense difficulty in reading generally. (Of course, in the absence of evidence from research what I have said is not much more than idle speculation.)

Yes, I had a life before I 'discovered' philosophy. At one time, I wanted to be a scientist (I started a BSc in Chemistry at Leeds University but I was a lousy student). Then I discovered photography. I can remember vividly what it was like, doing dangerous chemistry experiments in the bathroom, then a few years later prowling the streets with my camera. Fond memories. But the person who did those things had no idea what lay ahead. (See the account I wrote in 1999 My philosophical life.)

And yet — and this is the ironic thing — human beings inevitably tell the story of their lives from a biased perspective. I can't help feeling that somehow, even then, I knew that I was bound for philosophy. At 12, I was nearly expelled from my barmitzvah classes for proudly telling a fellow student that I was an atheist. I have a memory fragment of wrestling with the God question in the toilet, calling God every rude name I could think of, scared of the punishment I would receive, but nothing happened. God ignored my insults. At some point, He just vanished. Only later, I discovered that this was a question you could argue about, logically. But the decision had already been made.

Then there's that memory fragment I had from when I was much younger, maybe 6 or 7 (discussed in Hedgehog Philosopher Day 29). What was that about? It feels so real to me now. Can I really say, for certain, that that experience was my first inkling that I would be a philosopher?

To cut a long story short, I like to think that some of the things I did were somehow explained by an innate propensity, a natural inclination towards philosophy. But there is no way to verify this.

So now, we skip to my first year at Birkbeck College London. I am going hell for leather. At every lecture I take copious notes, carefully filed in a large red binder. I stay up until 3 am in the morning solving a logic proof. (I succeeded, but what if I'd failed? would I have carried on?) — What is going on in my head?

This is what Robert wants to know. It seems to me that the study of philosophy has this peculiarity. That if you're serious about the subject — serious enough to want to be a philosopher — then everything you do and every interest that you have undergoes a form of mutation. I was no longer a photographer, I was a philosopher with a camera. I was no longer a hippie lookalike singing Bob Dylan songs, I was a philosopher with a guitar (who still looked like a hippie). Most important of all, everyone I met got to know very quickly about 'my' philosophy. I had discovered a way of being in the world.

I guess what this is working up to is that this isn't really about the brain. As I have already argued, the brain is versatile, it can cope with almost any new input. This is about the struggle to define oneself, to decide how you face the world and how the world sees you. Of course there will be hiccups in the process of transition. You do feel sometimes that you are going mad (good advice to take a complete break when this happens — go for a walk, have sex, do something distracting). Robert Pirsig's bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance paints a vivid picture of a philosophy student ('Phaedrus' named after Plato's dialogue) who goes over the brink from too much mental exertion — reading that may have saved me from a similar fate.

You've got to push yourself a little bit — actually rather a lot — if you are serious. But I would never take a student whom I suspected had mental problems. For the same reason you wouldn't let someone who had a heart condition do martial arts training. That's just asking for trouble. On the other hand, none of us is perfect. Maybe it is even true that a painful sense of one's own mental imperfections is what drives one to philosophy. As the cheesy sign you sometimes see in offices says, 'You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps.'

Monday, February 14, 2011

Philosophy as a process

On Sat, Feb 5, 2011 at 11:00:24
Nastik asked this question:

Suppose someone objected, If philosophy is ongoing process, what's the point of engaging in it? You'll never get any certain answers; your search will never end. Such a prospect is thoroughly depressing. How would you respond to this criticism?

I've been wrestling with Nastik's question lately. There's a very easy, almost knee-jerk response that philosophers sometimes give to this kind of objection, along the lines of, 'The point of philosophy is that it is a journey.' As a philosopher, you are always on the way towards something but you never finally 'arrive'. Every stopping point is just another stage in the journey.

This response is wrong in so many ways I don't even think I can list them all. But I will just look at one or two.

When is a journey more important than the arrival? I recently bought myself a classic car on eBay. I hadn't driven for ten years. What finally prompted my decision was the realization that I didn't need a car. My 36 year old Scimitar GTE is strictly for joy riding. We're lucky to live in a part of the UK (on the edge of the Peak National Park) which has some great roads. You pick a destination — there are many to choose from — drive there by the most picturesque route and then drive back. There's no point to it other than the pleasure of the ride.

If I'm actually going somewhere, and the distance is short enough, I walk. I walk the two and a half miles to my office. Otherwise, I take the bus or the train. One of the things about an old car is that you can never be certain that you will reach your destination without mishaps. When you're joyriding, it's part of the sense of adventure.

Is that what philosophy is like? Firstly, there is far more pain than pleasure in a philosophical journey. I mean, if you are really serious about it. Philosophy can be agonizing. You do it, you endure, because you are trying to get somewhere and for the sake of getting there. And when you fail, which given the nature of the activity is often a foregone conclusion, on top of the pain is a sense of disappointment and regret.

You can study philosophy for pleasure, if that's what you want. You can follow the thoughts and the lives of the great philosophers, take a dip in the deep waters of two and a half millennia of philosophical thought, and come out feeling exhilarated and refreshed. Many of my students feel this way. But my best students know that there is more to it than that.

There's another way in which one might seek to justify philosophy as a process. This is along the lines of the mental gym where you exercise your thinking muscle. 'No pain, no gain.' You don't give up when the going gets tough, you try harder. All the time you know that your mental powers are being steadily improved. In the mental gym, there's no such thing as failure, because every hour you put in makes your mind stronger, better.

That's fine if you see philosophy as just another means of self-improvement. But if you are really gripped by a philosophical question, you want to know the answer. In athletic competitions, something counts as 'winning' or 'losing'. If you are serious about athletics, not just someone who goes to a gym twice a week to work out, then you want to win. Yes, there is satisfaction in knowing you did your best. But that's not sufficient compensation for coming second.

Why study philosophy? 'For pleasure,' is one good answer. 'For self-improvement,' is another good answer. But neither of these answers gets anywhere close to the core of what philosophy is about. Ultimately, there is no justification for engaging in philosophy other than the brute fact that one finds the problems and questions of philosophy gripping. And if you are gripped, really gripped, then you want to know the answers, just as much as the runner wants to win.

So let's consider 'the philosopher' as a character motivated, neither by pleasure or the desire for self-improvement but solely by the desire for knowledge. The desire for answers. You can satisfy this desire, and many serious and fine academic philosophers do this, by picking problems which can be solved. The implication of Nastik's question, they would say, is simply false.

Open any journal of academic philosophy and you will find contributions which advance the study of philosophy by answering questions, solving difficulties, clarifying confusions. In principle, the situation is no different in academic philosophy than any other academic subject, say, chemistry, or history. Meanwhile, the big questions remain matters of incessant debate. But the progress of the subject isn't judged solely by the progress made with big questions. Physics is not refuted by the likelihood that there will never be a fully consistent 'Theory of Everything'.

That would be fine if you are content to spend your time as a philosopher tweaking theories or debating points of logic. As I am not. Like many committed philosophers I also want answers to the big questions. I'm not satisfied with indefinitely putting off any hope of a solution. But isn't this a strange kind of paradox? I know that the ultimate problems can't be cracked. I know that the effort to find a solution is futile. And yet, I feel compelled to keep trying.

This doesn't depress me. It doesn't exactly fill me with joy either. Because it isn't really about me. Feelings count for something but they are not the most important consideration. Nietzsche understood that there was something more important than happiness (which 'only Englishmen' seek as an end in itself) and that is to have, or to be an arrow, to be possessed by a sense of direction and purpose. Yes, I do feel something, deeply, the sense that in doing this I am fulfilling my purpose even though I couldn't tell you exactly what that purpose is. To know that I would have to know the ultimate answers, and I already said, I don't believe I will ever know.

When I do philosophy, when I grapple with its insoluble problems, I have the sense that I am in the presence of something sublime. That feeling is something I value, even though, as I said, feeling is not the most important consideration. In the presence of the sublime, other things — things which are not sublime but merely mundane, the distractions of everyday living — are put into their proper perspective. And it is good to have a proper perspective.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Capitalism and poverty of desire

On Fri, Feb 4, 2011 at 13:18:52
Kramer asked this question:

How can philosophy help in addressing a poverty of desire? Living in a capitalist society leads to spending most of my time towards earning a living and caring for my dependents. I feel I must try out different vocations to figure out the job I would like best but then you would not know if you really like a job unless you put in sufficient time. And I don't have much time and I don't know what I like. I just live and this causes a poverty of desire.

The claim that human beings in capitalist society work 'just to live' rather than to fulfil their 'human essence' was the criticism famously levelled by Marx originally in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. As a capitalist sympathetic to Marx's ideas about the human essence and the need to fulfil it, I feel sorry that so many people spend so much of their lives in dead-end jobs just working to make ends meet, I really do. It's something of which I have hardly any experience, not because I am capitalist living of the sweat of the working class, but because of my innate laziness. I lack the Protestant work ethic. You won't get me to work by threats or rewards. Only the prospect of fulfilling my human essence is sufficient to motivate me.

As a result of this, I am poor. If I had been more 'responsible', my family would be better provided for but at least we have a roof over our heads and we don't starve. I have spent two thirds of my six decades doing more or less what I do now. I reckon I'm pretty good at my job — philosophizing on a point. I don't get a lot of praise, but then I never needed other people's approval to motivate me either.

This morning, I knew that another Tentative Answer was overdue. I looked forward to the prospect with a mixture of apprehension, nervousness and slight annoyance at myself for not having written my weekly answer last week so that I could spend the rest of my day watching the clouds go by as I love to do.

But then, part of being lazy is not doing a task at the first opportunity, but rather on the deadline when you absolutely know that you can't postpone it another day.

What advice can I give Kramer?

First, about Marx. It is absolutely wrong to think that the need to work at a task you don't like is a criticism that Marx laid at capitalism's door. Not at all. How much work is required and what kind depends to a large extent on things out of our control. In the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust the survivors will be working their guts out just to stay alive. In a future super-technological age of plenty, perhaps very little work will be needed at all, maybe just a couple of hours on a Friday.

But let's just tackle things as they are.

Regardless of how society is organized or what political system human beings live under, work will be necessary. Marx understood this. Doing what is necessary, pulling your weight, making your contribution to society is part of what is required to fulfil one's human essence. There are some jobs that only a masochist would enjoy, and there are not nearly enough masochists to go round. But the jobs have to be done, nonetheless. Say, it's your turn to clean out the lavatories. The point, however, is that provided everyone pulls their weight (and barring the nuclear holocaust scenario) you have sufficient time time to do things which you enjoy, which enhance you and express your individuality.

The young Marx's criticism of capitalist society was that the very best of the worker is used up in the daily grind. the worker's only pleasures the animal pleasures of eating, sex and sleeping. Then the whole things starts again. Marx believed that to sell your labour rather than give it freely out of the joyful desire to make a useful contribution (including cleaning out lavatories) already condemns you. You're nothing better than a prostitute. But then so are the all those talented people who choose wealth and comfort over artistic integrity. In a world that runs on money, we sell our souls because we lose our sense of value — regardless of whether the general standard of living is high or low.

Criticism of materialism is nothing new. Gloomy Diogenes was there before Marx (see Follydiddledah page 6). Pissing and shitting in the street, begging coins of passers by in return for a caustic philosophical discourse, that's not my idea of the good life. But freedom to express your human essence has a value, and that's one way to be free if you can accept the discomfort. Be a bum. — But I forgot, you have a family.

(This reminds me of a beautiful short novel Knulp — actually three short stories — written by Herman Hesse in 1915, which makes a good case that the life of a tramp isn't that bad if you are one of those rare people who has the right qualities.)

This isn't the place to launch into a criticism of Marxist philosophy. I will just say that a society of brotherly and sisterly love, where we are all just one happy family and everyone does the work required without needing to be motivated by material reward isn't something that anyone has ever believed possible, apart from maybe the early Christians. That's what you would have to achieve in order to get rid once and for all of the evil of money.

Kramer, your problem isn't about the evils of capitalism, real though they may be. Accept that you may need to choose between jobs you don't like, and that the best choice you can possibly make is more likely than not a job you won't enjoy doing — at least not too much. But still, there's the pleasure of social contact, work mates, the various compensations that help you get through the day. Be prepared to take a cut in pay, in order to work for someone human rather than a bastard (as many bosses unfortunately are). You have obligations to your family but those obligations don't include self-sacrifice. If you sell yourself into miserable wage slavery, your value to them reduces to the money you earn.

(Which reminds me of another novel, or novella, Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis coincidentally also written in 1915.)

Find an interest in life, outside work or family. You can probably guess what I'm going to say. You found the Ask a Philosopher web site searching for sites related to philosophy. Take a philosophy course. Develop your mind. Don't do it because of the super-slim chance of making philosophy your career. The chances are, you're not cut out for it. Do it because it is one way — very satisfying, as I have discovered — to realize your human essence.

And do other things. Don't forget your friends, keep yourself fit, engage in something artistic, look after your garden. Whatever talents you have, exploit them. Accept the necessity for work but have a life as well.