Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Theory Theory

A C Grayling

Today in my readings for Epistemology I learnt that there is a theory known as the Theory Theory. I thought my head might explode. However, I held it together and went off to my first lecture in the subject, with the (justly) famous A C Grayling, Birkbeck's celebrity philosopher. As expected, the class was well-attended (including by people doing their PhDs, keen to quizz the professor); and the room - I use the term loosely - was ghastly. A word from the wise - don't ever enrol in anything that meets in the 'Lecture Room' in the Philosophy Building at Kings College London. Outside, as night fell,  London was chilly and pouring with rain; inside the puke-yellow walls of the 'Lecture Room' and it's sealed windows pulsated with the dripping sweat of the class, as the tropical and air-less conditions saw student after student drop senseless from their uncomfortable wooden chairs...I exaggerate, but only slightly. But as a friend pointed out to me, there are no upgrades in university. If I want to be taught by A C Grayling, this is what I must endure.

Happily, I can report that the lecture was absorbing, witty, erudite and replete with interesting aphorisms and anecdotes with which I can regale my blog readers. But first, I can hear some of you asking - 'What is an epistemology for? What do you do with it? And does it come in different colours?' Epistemology is the study of knowledge - it asks how can we 'know' anything. It informs all philosophic enquiry; as Professor Grayling put it, epistemology is a 'bleeding chunk' of philosophy wrenched from its place in other branches of the subject. Personally, I found the use of this somewhat graphic turn of phrase a bit disturbing, so soon after I had been incarcerated in the Yellow Hole of KCL. I took a sip of water and concentrated.

We began with Descartes ('I think, therefore I am') - Professor Grayling called him 'Rene' and did a funny French accent - and moved on through Locke to Bishop Berkeley. We paused at the old question: 'if a tree falls in a forest and there is no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?' Grayling referred to this as a 'question for children', though I have seen it get the Sydney Morning Herald letter writers excited for weeks on end. Grayling (and we went smoothly along with him) said: of course it makes no sound. Sound is something heard. QED. He also gave us a 'sexist joke' version of the story (which he incorrectly - or perhaps ironically -characterised as a 'feminist joke'): if a man says something in the forest and there is no-one there to hear him, is he still wrong?

Bertrand Russell, at about the time
of the perambulator incident.
We also heard about Bertrand Russell's great work, the Principia Mathematica, which was such a huge manuscript that it had to be delivered to Cambridge University Press 'in a perambulator'. (I want you to imagine that anecdote told in a posh British voice and with excellent comic timing). Russell had to pay the CUP £50 to publish the Principia Mathematica, in a successful example of self-publishing. Russell apparently said that he didn't know of anyone who had read past Principal 26.

One student asked Professor Grayling if he was going to expand on the views of Heidegger, to which the answer was a fairly unequivocal 'no'. He described Heidegger as being, like Kant, 'a deep end from which many have not be able to get out'. We ended - after a lot more serious stuff, which I assure you we covered - with an anecdote about Wittgenstein, who had only one book published in his lifetime, his Tractatus. He submitted the manuscript of this for his PhD at Cambridge in 1929, which he was duly awarded - the only university degree he ever held. PhDs were considered a bit new-fangled by the Cambridge dons at the time. They originated in Germany, and came to England via the USA. Nevertheless, the chief examiner, G E Moore, said of the Tractatus: "I myself consider that this is a work of genius; but, even if I am completely mistaken and it is nothing of the sort, it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree."

On that encouraging note, we all gratefully left the Yellow Hole of KCL, until next week. It was an interesting lecture, engagingly presented (not something that can be said of all lectures) and I look forward to the rest of the course - though not to spending more time in you-know-where.

By the way, here's an interesting factoid: Wittgenstein came from a wealthy Austrian family, and his sister Margaret was painted by Klimt for her wedding, in 1905: nice, eh?


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