Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Launching into Philosophy

Monday was a Red Letter Day – my first class! After driving 185 kilometres (plus a few more because of getting lost in Barcelona), stressing through a late flight to London, scampering from London City Airport to St Pancras, then hoofing it across town for 45 minutes because of a Tube strike, I finally found myself at 6 pm in a dingy basement of Kings College (with whom Birkbeck shares its Philosophy lectures) with about 60 other hopeful philosopher-wannabes.

Somewhat bizarrely, my first lecturer turned out to be an Australian, lecturing on a text written by an Australian. The subject was Ethics, Introduction to, and we considered the questions of moral objectivity, meta-ethics and ‘error theory’. I found the lecturer engaging, the class intelligent and focussed, and the material interesting. Next week we move swiftly on to John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, so I had better not spend too much time on this blog and get on with the reading.

To round off Lecture One of the year, the lecturer left us with a few thoughts about ‘doing’ philosophy. He suggested that a history student is expected to study the subject before undertaking historical research, and that a chemistry student is expected to study the subject before conducting his/her own experiments. But a philosophy student is expected to ‘do’ philosophy from day one – that is, read and examine everything. We were the provided with a pithy handout which begins thus:

At no stage in one’s career is reading philosophy easy... Wittgenstein is reported to have said that he found reading some philosophy ‘a kind of agony’. Many people are inclined to agree with this.

After a short break we launched immediately into the next lecture, an introduction to Logic, presented by a rather eccentric  German, or possibly Austrian, lecturer, by whom I was introduced to the concept of an argument that is ‘valid but false’. This can only be a useful thing to know about, I’m sure. As an example, I give you:
·         Only schnauzers look like Nietzsche.
·         Nietzsche looks like Nietzsche.
·         Nietzsche is a schnauzer.


Not deterred in any way – in fact, inspired – by my Monday night philosophical adventuring, I sped off the next afternoon to the heart of Bloomsbury for the Greek Philosophy lecture. In fact, it turned out to be the true heart of Bloomsbury: as I searched for the row house at 43 Gordon Square where the lecture room was reputedly to be found, I saw plaques marking the previous homes of Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes, and others of the Bloomsbury Set. So my lecture was to be in Virginia Woolf’s house! (Well almost; and her house was bombed to bits in the war, but still...) Inside, the house turned out to be a rabbit warren of corridors and ugly little partitioned rooms, and – weirdly – a hidden heart rebuilt in a wild ultra-modern primary coloured frenzy. 

The Greeks lecture room was stuffed to the gills with people: the lecturer seemed surprised at the crowd and said he had been expecting only 20 – there was at least double this number present. It turned out that half the crowd were ‘auditing’ the subject – that is, attending the lecture but not taking it for assessment purposes. They are just interested. What so far seems different from your old school/uni days??

And what a crowd they turned out to be – the arguing and commenting and thrusting and parrying began almost immediately – possibly because the very first thing the lecturer asked was: ‘does all knowledge derive from sense-experience?’ This immediately split the room into empiricists and non-empiricists (or, to put it another way, Aristotelians and Platonists). The empiricists were in a small minority (to the lecturer’s surprise) but they made up for this in volubility. I had a very good time, even contributing my own (definitely Platonist) views. The two hours flew by.

Outside in the Gower Street precinct the streets were teeming with students from both Birkbeck and UCL, fresh and eager in the first week of term. The atmosphere was really vibrant and the coffee queues long. I visited the big Waterstone’s academic bookshop and came away with an armload of philosophy texts (got a student discount with my student card! Woo!) Did I mention that I have a lot of reading to do?

I have tonight managed to put together from a flat-pack a little desk. I was interrupted in my task only by an incident to do with my grilled lamb chops, which set off every fire alarm in the apartment, all of which refused to stop no matter what I tried. So I called Mark, the nice man at the concierge desk, who came up to see me with a very long stick with which to reset the alarms. Two of the alarms are at least six metres from the floor (I live in the rafters of St Pancras). Mark commented, ‘it’s not a very practical building’. Yup. No more lamb chops for me.

Now I am writing this perched on my new desk chair at my new desk, philosophy texts piled upon it (the desk, not the chair), and new stationary poised in the little shelves. There is no excuse to prevent the commencement of study. Plato, John Stuart Mill, and Nietzsche the schnauzer – here I come!


  1. Way back in prehistory when I did Philosophy 1 at Adelaide Uni we were told that prior to the discovery of Australia the syllogism (it is a syllogism, isn't it?) was : All swans are white. All sheep are white. Therefore, all sheep are swans. The example had to change when they found black swans in W.A. True or not, I really can't say, but that is what I was told. Jocelyn

  2. The mere existence - or possible existence - of black swans has ruined or inpsired many a good theory. The bird featured again only recently in Nassim Nicholas Talib's 'Black Swan Theory' which purports to examine the disproportionate role of hard-to-predict, rare, high-impact events. I always called my shelf full of unread books my 'Black Swan' shelf: it's the ones you haven't yet read that could have the most impact. Potential.