Thursday, March 4, 2010

Philosophy - Pt I. What's it all about, then? With references to Sartre, Hume, Bishop Berkeley, Bertrand Russell and a certain London cabbie.

I notice someone else has visited my blog after finding it by googling ‘philosophy’, and they, too, I should imagine, will have trudged off rather disappointed by the lack of intellectual sparkle exhibited here. So just in case someone else does the same — and I am always keen to avoid disappointing the punter, whatever his or her reasons for dropping by — I shall write a few words and try to clarify exactly what my interest in philosophy is and is not.

First off, I should point out that what one man or woman means by philosophy (in the narrow, academic sense) is something of a movable feast. I took a philosophy degree course at Dundee University in the late Sixties/early Seventies and the department there was definitely signed up to what was then known (and, for all I know, might still be today) as the Oxford school of philosophy, which took a — for want of a better word — ‘scientific’ approach to philosophy, in as far as it was strict on what might be regarded as ‘known’ and, in spirit, firmly adhered to an almost mathematical approach to knowledge. The Oxford school regarded — regards? — itself as the orthodoxy and rather looked down on what, I think, it referred to the Continental school of philosophy, which it thought of as ‘sentimental’ in a literal sense. The Continental school, of course, regarded the Oxford school — if it was in the slightest bit bothered, which is probably was not — as being stuck up and elitist. Now I might here and now throw a few names into the pot and attempt to give the impression that I am au fait with their work, but the truth is that I am not.

I arrived at Dundee a very young 18-year-old, and I don’t think I was sufficiently intellectually mature enough to benefit from a degree course of the kind then provided. (These days, I gather rather to my horror, a gradgrindian emphasis on regarding a degree course as a preparation for life in ‘the workplace’ is the vogue, whereas when I went to college, the philosophy of tertiary education was still that its purpose was to train a mind. Thus a history graduate might well, later in life, find himself in building a career in sales, or marketing, or advertising, or in the Civil Service. Undergraduates studying medicine or engineering, of course, were more likely, although no necessarily, to end up working as doctors or engineers, but even then this was not such a given. More on the changing nature of student life in another entry. Why, for example, are students no longer out on the streets protesting?

The strict Oxford school approach did not necessarily preclude us studying philosophy beyond the pale, such as existentialism, but I should imagine doing so was seen as a kind of charitable ecumenical interest. So what Sartre, Heidigger, Kierkegaard and Jaspers had to say was studied, as were Bishop Berkeley (‘we exist because God is thinking about us’), Hume, Locke, Descartes and various other bods. Studying their work was an exercise in seeing what had lead up to the Oxford school.

I was something of an intellectual scavenger and would pick up a snippet here and a titbit there, which, judiciously and strategically thrown into conversation might well give the impression that I knew what I was talking about. Unfortunately I didn’t. In my fourth year, we all attended a seminar on ‘the Vienna Circle’, many of whom had arrived at philosophy from mathematics and treated the subject in much the same manner. This would explain their doctrine (too strong a word, but what the hell) of logical positivism. To this day, I'm not too sure what it is, except that it is grounded in empiricism. (My French cousin, a professor of aesthetics, who must remain nameless after I named him in a previous, now deleted entry, is firmly in the rationalist school, whereas I rather think all that ‘we can work it all out as long as we think it through and have enough red wine’ is err, on the wrong track.)

In my fourth year at Dundee, we students were all expected to write and read ‘a paper’ and in hindsight I hate to think just how jejune mine must have been. I do, however remember, answering, in response to the observation that there was an ultimate truth out there ‘in reality’ to a statement such as ‘the cat sat on the mat’, that such thinking did not and could never account for outright sarcasm. My comment came towards, although not at, the end of the seminar, and I remember it broke up early. At the time I prided myself on having thrown an intellectual spanner into the works, though I now suspect the assembled philosophy staff simply thought ‘life’s too short. Let’s go off an have a cup of tea’.

There is an apocryphal story told my a London cabbie which might illuminate the varying approaches to philosophy and what different people who profess and interest in philosophy think it is. The cabbie stopped in The Strand and immediately recognised that his new passenger was none other than Bertrand Russell.
‘You’re Lord Russell, aren’t you,’ the cabbie said to the passenger.
‘Yes, I am,’ Bertrand Russell replied.
‘All right,’ said the cabbie, ‘what’s it all about then?’
‘And do you know,’ the cabbie later told his friend, ‘he couldn’t tell me!’

Part II to come when I am a little less tired. Good night.

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