Wednesday, March 17, 2010

All things to all men: philosophy, Darfur, self-help and why meaning is not so important

The website which religiously informs me of these things has reported that this blog has again been sought out by the guy (or gal) attracted to it using the buzzword ‘philosophy’. And yet again he (or she) will have been disappointed with what they came across had they lingered and read on a little. If I remember, I was in a rather bad mood and used extremely coarse language to slag off several people. Well, perhaps I should try to keep them here a little longer when they next turn up and put my skates on to write something about philosophy, but the trouble is I have absolutely nothing original to say. What I can do, though, is to outline what any would-be philosopher will not find here.
I pointed out a few entries ago that because of the nature of the course I took at Dundee University all those years ago, my slender knowledge of philosophy is further constrained by the fact that the department there was solely interested in what is generally known as ‘Oxford philosophy’. That it offered — and I took — a course in Existentialism which dealt with (naturally) Jean-Paul Sartre, Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Heidigger (and regular readers will already have cottoned on that those are the only four existentialist philosophers I know, which is why I am obliged to repeat the names) must be put down to an innate British courtesy, rather as we might acknowledge that the French and Italians also like to cook. But generally if a school of philosophy’s ideas did not meet the rigourous standards laid down by the Oxford school, it was a little difficult to take them all that seriously.
So the searcher after truth tracking me down to this blog must take that into account.
He or she should also realise that I am not in the slightest interested in trying to understand ‘what life is all about’ or ‘what the meaning of life might be’. In a nutshell, my view is that life, whether human, animal or plant, simply evolved and that it is intrinsically without meaning. That is, however, not to say, that our individual and communal lives have no meaning. It is merely to say that whatever meaning there is for us (and were I a little slicker, I might try to introduce obliquely Kierkegaard’s notion of subjective truth, but unfortunately I am as slick as a coarse metal file) is wholly artificial (in a rather obscure sense of the word, but I can’t, at this point, be arsed trying to find the right one). It boils down to this: life is. What it is, how it evolved, where it is going to, I really do not know, but more to the point, I have no interest in speculating. I don’t intend spending my time beating my head against a brick wall.
It is worth pointing out, of course, that we are most interested in ‘understanding what life is about’ or searching for the meaning of life’ when we are in our post-pubescent years and ‘life’ as we see it all around us is often something of a mystery, if not sometimes a little unsettling. The other time we find ourselves casting about for ‘meaning’ is when, for one reason or another, we are unhappy. (And we are sometimes unhappy without realising it. Regular drinking can often mask an underlying unhappiness. Just out of interest, spend an evening with friends in a bar, but stick to soft drinks while they are getting rat-arsed. You will find yourself wondering just what is so funny about all the things they are laughing at — and it is not you who is being po-faced. One suspect that life wouldn't be so much of a breeze if they had less booze in them.) Of course, none of that is to say that we would otherwise not be interested in the ‘meaning of life’. It’s just that most of us have an unlimited capacity for bullshitting ourselves and if we really were interested in that kind of thing, we would spend a great deal more time and effort pursuing that interest. As it is, all we really want is a few headline facts, a couple of quotable quotes and something to keep up going until Emmerdale or EastEnders starts, or Days Of Our Lives or Neighbours, or whatever soap is now the most popular.
I often, rather glibly, wonder aloud just how interested refugees in, say, Darfur are in ‘the meaning of life’. I should think their more immediate concern is simply with remaining alive by finding food and drink and avoiding violence. Speculating on the ‘meaning of life’ is all too often a pastime indulged in by the leisured classes. That is not, however, to say that the hopes and wishes and aspirations of such refugees are not identical to yours and mine. Last night I heard a news report from a refugee camp in Darfur which has been so longstanding that there are several well-established schools there with pupils keen to learn. There’s little difference between them and us, except that we can be reasonably certain where our next meal is coming from and need not live in fear of being killed. (Incidentally, it is notable that, for example, something like education is most valued by those who have least access to it. One of the lessons I am trying to drum into my two children is to understand that ‘easy come, easy go’, that to achieve what is usually most worthwhile and rewarding in life usually take rather more effort. It is something I wish I had been taught when I was a child, but I don’t think I ever was.)
Musing on the ‘meaning of life’, I should like to mention a cartoon strip I once regularly read in a newspaper. It was a cartoon strip called Hagar the Horrible, which appeared for many years on the back page of The Sun. In the strip I particularly remember (and to be honest I remember no others), Hagar is sitting at a bar staring morosely into his beer. The barman notices his sombre mood and asks him what the matter is.
‘Sometimes,’ says Hagar gloomily, ‘I wonder why we’re all here.’
‘Well,’ says the barman, ‘I’m the barman. I’m here to serve drinks.’
Quite. It’s not exactly deep, but that joke contains a rather important truth. For me at least. Tackled from a different angle, I shall pass on an Icelandic fisherman’s saying I once came across and which I always find reassuring: ‘When in the storm,’ it urges, ‘pray to God. But keep rowing.’
The searcher after truth will also not find here any of the usual gunge which masquerades as philosophy in any number of middle-brow self-help books. If they are intent on going on a ‘journey’ to discover their ‘inner self’ or ‘the child within’ or anything of that kind, good luck to them. But they will find no practical help in this blog. I have not doubt that such books, which I gather sell by the lorry-load all over the world, can provide a temporary respite from whatever ails those who buy them, but the ones I have flicked through in bookshops have been 24 carat crap. The make very little sense at all and remind me all too easily of those ads claiming that they will reveal to you THE secret of losing weight, or of getting rid of that flabby belly, or making a million dollars in three months or of 1,001 other things which concern us. They invariably go on and on and on and on about what they promise they are going to do for you, but never actually get to the point. Ever. Because, of course, by the time you have bought the book, you are of now more interest to the author.
It would be only fair to add here that I did once by a self-help book, but this one was of practical advice and there was not an airy-fairy notion in it. I bought it in the spring of 1990 when I was in the depths of a reasonably severe bout of clinical depression and it was along the lines of explaining what, physically, depression was, and counselling that depressive attacks are self-limiting. It was by a Dorothy Rowe, a respected British psychologist and is full of very good, practical advice. I have never, however, bought a book hoping to become a ‘better me’ or anything of that kind, although I have toyed (and, to tell the truth, am still toying) with the idea of writing one called A Cynic’s Guide To A Happier You, which would consist solely of good advice along the lines of don’t overspend, don’t drink or eat too much, don’t expect everything always to be perfect, always be honest with yourself even if you can’t always be honest with others, avoid telling lies and don’t burn the candle at both ends.
Which is all a long, long way from ‘philosophy’ even if not of the Oxford school. But as I have waffled on for quite a while now, I must pull myself up short and resume these inconsequential musings another time.
By the way, I am writing this sitting on the train on my iBook and shall upload it later. The reason I mention that is that the particular word-processing software I am using is called Bean and it is the most useful I have come across, not least because right at the bottom of the screen is a word count which updates with every word I write. I have now, it tells me written 1,545 with this word, and I feel I should go on to see whether I can’t hit 2,000. However, I doubt that anything I write will be any more interesting — or rather any less dull — than what I have written so far, and the chances are that given that I would merely be padding out a piece of writing simply to hit 2,000 words, it might well be pretty boring stuff. And with that I have still only made 1,621, so I really shall call it a day.
PS As, as usual, I have gone through this a day later to iron out infelicities and spelling mistakes (despite knowing better, I still tend to write ‘to’ when I should be writing ‘too’) so the figures given of how many words I have written are wrong, though I doubt whether any reader has been bored enough to count the words just to check whether I am telling the truth.

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