Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why Philosophy?

Food for thought?

I have often been asked why I have chosen to study philosophy, of all things. Many people look a bit wistful and say that they envy me and ‘would love to do it’ if only there was the time (and, unspoken, if only there was a living to be earned from it). Others look slightly aghast, and say that they couldn’t imagine concerning themselves with something in which there is never an ‘answer’.

This morning as I read the newspaper there was yet another of those angst-ridden modern social dilemmas which seem to regularly afflict us. It seems that history teachers in Arizona have been – shock, horror – teaching Mexican American history. The politicians have passed a law to squash this endeavour, for a variety of ideological reasons I won’t go into, because they are not really relevant except insofar as they exist. The point is: revision of history? Hello?

Last weekend there was an article on the ongoing angst over use of the ‘n-word’ (ok, so I am conformist, and I also don’t want my blog to be blocked by ‘insult-filters’) in Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ – to the point where there is a proposal to ‘sanitize’ the novel by changing the word. Amongst all the hand-wringing it seemed that virtually no-one had actually read the whole book – or hadn’t understood it. It is clearly abolitionist, which surely changes the debate. Here's an article succumbing to the perceived 'need' for censorship.

However, my aim here is not to debate these issues, but just to let out the secret that in the privacy of our usually less-than salubrious lecture rooms, we of the philosophy faculties of Birkbeck and Kings College London abandon the horribly restrictive notion of ‘political correctness’. Thank goodness we are not having our debates in the full glare of public scrutiny, and we don’t have to mind the sensitive toes of whole varieties of constituencies. Don’t get me wrong – humankind are social beasts, and we all must live together and hopefully we can find the most suitable way to do that. But ‘political correctness’, or a misunderstanding of it, has the strong tendency to stifle the debates that really should be had.

The fierce Herr Nietzsche
For example: you might like (or you might not like, depending upon the strength of your stomach for these things) to be a fly on the wall in our Nietzsche lectures. There, the professor strides about explaining how Nietzsche characterised the Christian as a bad case of repressed drives, turned on him/herself, leading to horrible self-hate and a view that the after-life is something to aspire to rather than this life; to say nothing of creating an abhorrence of bodily functions of all kinds. We then moved on to Nietzsche’s ‘Genealogy of Morality’ where he characterises the Jewish people as ‘slaves’ under Roman ‘masters’ and has a theory about the Jews underhandedly making up Christianity and tricking the Romans into it, all as a kind of revenge for the powerlessness of their position.  (Just to interpolate, he also considered the Jews to be ‘creative’ for doing this, and the text doesn’t support the anti-Semitism he was later accused of).

Nevertheless, other than in a philosophy classroom, these frank dissections of such matters could cause – at the least – a bit of discomfort. At the worst, you could get your head kicked in, figuratively or even literally. Just for discussing.  Yet Nietzsche is an important and pivotal thinker with great insights into human psychology and some deeply important things to say about the role of religion (and many other things) in human life. It is utterly exciting to not merely read these thoughts, but to hear scholars and engaged alumni debating the ideas.

Often I find myself reading the press these days, where some human foible or other is related, and reacting with the thought ‘but surely you know...’ My middle of the road western liberal ideology is undergoing a subtle shift, and I find myself reacting to news developments in the world not with a ‘knee-jerk’ or ‘gut reaction ‘ ‘feel’, but with a question, or with a different paradigmatic viewpoint.

Hey – I just used the word ‘paradigmatic’ in a sentence. That proves I’m a real philosophy student, right?

Apart from freedom to think without constraint, there is also the unfettered range of things with which philosophers concern themselves. If it’s interesting, there’s a class on it. If it’s uninteresting, that’s for one of the sciences to get on with. For example, I have just decided that my essay on Schopenhauer and music is in final form. It was with some regret that I had to excise, due to word limit constraints, an excellently interesting passage on how Wagner’s ‘Tristan & Isolde’ is a musical embodiment of Schoppy’s metaphysics.

In a similar way, there’s no constraint to a particular period of human history – in fact, a great deal of time is taken up dissecting the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and the pre- and post- ancient philosophers. P & A (especially A) had so much influence on what our world is today that it seems almost too much to ascribe to one (or two) sets of shoulders.  And those two lived many centuries before Christianity was even a glint in the eye of...Paul?

Waiting in the corridor for class to begin the other day, a couple of students were discussing what they were getting out of philosophy. One (who I know for a die-hard empiricist – not that there’s anything wrong with that) said that it was giving him a lot of food for thought and helping him understand new ideas. The other said that in his case he found himself becoming more confused: just when you thought you understood a subject, or had a view on it, an afternoon in philosophy class left you doubting everything and needing a re-think from scratch. ‘You should try Epistemology’, I said. ‘After that, you don’t even know if it's possible to know.'

At the moment I am not taking any classes (specifically) in what is termed ‘practical philosophy’: ethics,  political philosophy and so on (although such issues creep into everything). I find that there you can become quite angst-ridden with trying to decide what is the best way for an individual or a society to live life. I am more interested in considering ontological (or metaphysical) questions (what is the world?) and epistemological questions (how can we know anything?). These are the ones where there probably isn’t going to be an ‘answer’, folks, and even defining the question is far from easy.

I did find a quote from A C Grayling (my Epistemology lecturer) which you might enjoy:
One can describe philosophy as the attempt to make clear, and if possible to answer, a range of fundamental and puzzling questions which arise when, in a general and inclusive way, we try to understand ourselves and the universe we inhabit.  Among many other things these questions concern existence and reality, knowledge and belief, reason and reasoning, truth, meaning, and value both ethical and aesthetic. ..Philosophical problems are not problems which can be solved by empirical means – by looking through a telescope or microscope, or by conducting experiments in a laboratory. They are conceptual and logical problems, requiring conceptual and logical investigation...
Just what you need after using a word like 'paradigmatic'.

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