Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Meaning of Life

Consider this cartoon by Argentinean cartoonist ‘Quino’ (Joaquín Salvador Lavado). It was sent to me (thank you Alex!) with the following note:
                Dear Annette
Enclosed herewith, please find an abridged history of philosophy (and of literature, etc.) which will hopefully be of great use to you in your new studies.

I am pleased to report that, in choosing to study philosophy – a decision I am often asked in puzzled tones to explain – it appears that I am decidedly cutting edge. The Guardian seems every day to have some report or other concerning things philosophical. For example, an interesting review of a new book ‘The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life’ by Bettany Hughes. The excerpt in the newspaper promises a book that does an excellent job of bringing to life Classical Athens of the 4th century BC:

He was anxious about the emerging power of the written word over face-to-face contact. The Athenian agora was his teaching room. Here he would jump on unsuspecting passersby, as Xenophon records. "One day Socrates met a young man on the streets of Athens. ‘Where can bread be found?' asked the philosopher. The young man responded politely. 'And where can wine be found?' asked Socrates. With the same pleasant manner, the young man told Socrates where to get wine. 'And where can the good and the noble be found?' then asked Socrates. The young man was puzzled and unable to answer. 'Follow me to the streets and learn,' said the philosopher."


The Ancient Agora in Athens, where Socrates would have walked & talked.
Particularly intriguing is a report that a small rural English town called Malmesbury, which happens to be where the philosopher Thomas Hobbes was born, is hoping to establish itself as a destination by becoming a ‘philosophy town’:

Planned "philosophy town" events include a festival of history, ideas and philosophy and an all-night examination of enlightenment. Also planned is a long-distance walk from Oxford through Malmesbury and on to Wrington in Somerset, birthplace of John Locke, another 17th-century philosophical colossus.

The town's philosophy champions hope to transform a building into an "ideas place", containing bookshops and a coffee house. Other proposals include dramatising classical philosophical texts and installing a trail of busts of great philosophers around the town.

I found particularly interesting the comments in the report about why the town thought that people would embrace the concept of engaging with philosophy:

...she is excited at the prospect of non-academics getting stuck into philosophy. "You don't have to want to be a professional philosopher," she said. "You don't have to be able to wrestle with the knottier passages of [Immanuel] Kant to be able to get a huge amount out of the subject. It's OK to dabble. Don't be scared. There are a lot of people thinking we really need this because we've got into such a mess not using human reason to its full potential."

Michael Cuthbert, head of the philosophy town project, believes that radio programmes such as Radio 4's In Our Time and Moral Maze, and the rise in popularity of the work of thinkers such as Alain de Botton, showed the time was ripe for a philosophy destination. People are more loose in their loyalties and more questioning. They want to grapple with big ideas," he said.

I am not sure when Malmsebury intends to launch its proposed Festival of Philosophy, but what might well get me to visit is the prospect of the Socrates-like plans to walk about with a philosopher. The plan is for professional philosophers to walk alongside participants or meet them in the pub for a debate at the end of the day. That sounds like fun!


A computer generated fractal image.
At the risk of straying from the philosophical to the mathematic (and I’m beginning to suspect that there is not such a great divide between the two as I might have hoped) this morning the Guardian also has a thoughtful obituary of Benoit Mandelbrot, the great mathematician who brought the world fractal geometry, which took us from the regularly-shaped geometric figures of triangles and circles of Euclid’s geometry to a geometry that could describes clouds and coastlines. Mandelbrot is reported to have remarked:

“What is science? We have all this mess around us. Things are totally incomprehensible. And the eventually we find simple laws, simple formulas. In a way, a very simple formula, Newton’s Law, which is just also a few symbols, can by hard work explain the motion of the planets around the sun and many, many other things to the 50th decimal. It’s marvellous: a very simple formula explains all these very complicated things.”

Isaac Newton
Which brings us rather neatly back to the opening image of the ‘philosopher’ under the tree, which is the vision we often have of the handsome Isaac Newton ‘discovering’ the law of gravity when an apple is supposed to have fallen on his head. And at the time he considered himself to be a philosopher, rather than a scientist, although there was really no clear line between the two.

I have a view that the occupation of philosophers is to investigate the questions which have no answers, and that once answers – or formula, approaches, evidence, etc. – begin to emerge the subject matter of the search transmogrifies into a ‘science’ and is gradually handed over to the empirical scientist to investigate further, acquiring in the process a new name, such as biology, psychology, psycho-analysis, physics, quantum physics, even economics. The philosophers then leave these investigators to their empirical tasks and move on to further unexplored territory. Although many a philosopher (beginning probably with Aristotle) could be described as a confirmed empiricist – that is, insisting on explanations being based on sense-perception and the ‘real world’ – many are also unafraid to confront the metaphysical or transcendental. The transcendental is usually of no concern whatever to the empirical scientist and this is perfectly fine. Just because an object is ‘transcendentally real’ doesn’t mean that it cannot be investigated empirically. Kant, for example – who is not an easy philosopher with whom to grapple (she says with sweeping understatement) was probably an empiricist (according to the consensus in last week’s class discussion) despite believing that ‘the thing itself’ is independent from how we can get hold of it. Science ignores these niceties and gets on with science, investigating objects in the phenomenal world, to the greater good of us all.

You see that I can be generous in my view of empirical scientists, despite the fact that many such can be quite derisory about metaphysicians. On with the debate! Love it.

Images from these websites:


  1. Thinking of you while doing my current project - weeding the reference collection (i.e. the open collection in the Main Reading Room). Titles such as "Dictionary of Concepts in the Philosophy of Science" are now consigned to stacks. Anything with a layer of dust goes.

  2. They need to get themselves on a uni reading list in order to survive.