Friday, 2 July 2010

To know less and less about more and more.

The alternative title of this post was going to be what have your changed your mind about and why? However, within the last year I would have to confess that I have not changed by mind in any great or profound way. This does mean that there has been no enlargement or evolution of what I think or why I think it. No. In fact, it has been a great year. Before going to university, I spent a good deal of time reading and thinking, it was slight in comparison however to what was to come. This is not to say that I found what I was studying large or taxing - most of the time I was off doing my own thing and had great fun doing so.

I think the correct assessment of this year is what could be called the Socratic definition of intelligence: that the mark of an educated man is to know the extent of his own ignorance, to know that is: less and less about more and more. Taking in the new five story library at Queens, with its thousands of books on philosophy, history and politics, one simultaneously feels unnerved at how little reading and understanding one possesses - while wishing to read to correct this limitation with all the hours that god sends. An example I fondly remember, was when I pulled Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word from the shelf. I sat down intending only to scan the book. However, so impressed and inspired by Nagel’s thought and elegance in writing that I sat in the chair for the next three hours and finished the book, even re-reading sections of it again to fully capture the message.

The lucky irony, is while this year I fully and deeply fell for the questions and problems of philosophy, it was not at first to be so. The degree that I had originally chosen to do was International Studies - similar to Politics (Political Science) with only a more internationalist flavour. Last summer however, after reading and re-reading Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Durant’s Story of Philosophy, the subject was something of an itch that could not be scratched. The problem was further compounded by reading Julian Baggini’s introductory aids to the subject (which I thoroughly recommend) - The Philosophers Toolkit and The Ethics Toolkit. These books, while designed to explain the conceptual tools, methods and arguments a philosopher uses, and as such might be considered dry and uninteresting - to me, on the contrary - it is rather the quest for precision, clarity and exactness that this book purports to help instil in the beginner that makes me value philosophy so.

Subsequently then, a week before term began I switched to a joint honours between politics and philosophy. By Christmas, my desire to pursue philosophy near full time was almost complete. By the years end I had decided to change my degree: major in philosophy and a minor in politics. The minor subjects of politics can be made up by studying political theory, so I still remain within the bounds of philosophy generally. Thus, I was lucky to have changed when I did, for it made all the difference between fully engaging in what I was doing instead of slowly losing the will to live. Indeed, as luck would have it, I more or less did (in subject material terms) a major/minor instead of a joint this year anyway. I have only had to do two full blown political science courses (instead of say three). One subject included in the politics course - Perspectives on Politics was political philosophy. This module, I enjoyed the most. It was charismatically taught by the lecturer - which always helps; the module was put together in a coherent and systematic fashion, unlike unfortunately, some others.

As you would expect the module introduced the key disputes within the subject. However, one in particular gripped me. It was the dispute namely between what can be called communitarian and liberal theories of justice. Though in fact, this does not really do justice (as it were) to the issue, as it is a debate that crosses over several interdisciplinary lines, never mind several distinct and overlapping areas in moral and political philosophy - not to mention the metaphysics of identity.

Initially, my first reaction to communitarian thought was one of indifference and dislike. I saw it as an apologists work for authoritarianism and obscurantism. However, I knew that this attitude was unjustified without careful consideration of the argument. So I pressed ahead and read twice Alistair Macintyre’s After Justice. Though I disagree much with what he thinks, I came to believe that something had been missed from debates within moral philosophy about the role of character, virtue and dispositions. Though I should stress, that this interest was stimulated by moral psychologists as much as by philosophers. The modern Liberal view - encapsulated by John Rawls is not necessarily opposed to communitarian thought in fact there are many points of agreement. The real disagreement is between what could be considered the extremes of libertarian thinking both the left and the right. Much of the year I spent thinking about a rapprochement between the two positions.

While I think that Rawls basic paradigm of distributive justice is sound, it builds a foundation upon which many questions remain, which could be asked and answered by number of different systems of thought - some of which might not be considered liberal. There is however some evidence to suggest that in terms of wellbeing and human flourishing - the communitarians may be right. This however needs to be cashed out in ways that avoid the standard criticisms that could dog it - its potential illiberalness, its insularity and obfuscation. I hope to develop some of my views on this over the summer in order to deliver a talk next year, as I happened to become vice president of Queens Philosophy Society. So I should say a few words about that.

The society intends to do a number of things, not least interviews with the staff modelled on the interviews that Bryan Magee undertook with several key contemporary philosophers concerning the greats. We also plan to do a medieval style dispute, which I think will be enormous fun, along with conferences and other things. The good thing about this is that it allows for the opportunity to meet people and argue and develop and refine ones views - something which is a necessary factor to this subject.

A lot of philosophy in my first semester was taken up by continental thought. It is this style of philosophy next to the Greeks that people probably most associate (negatively) philosophy with. This style of thought was well described by one lecturer (quoting Ricœur) that it was the “philosophy of suspicion”. We looked at Nietzsche and the Existentialists, a little Hegel and some Marx - thankfully no Freud (he was cancelled).

While I have to admit that I expected to intensely dislike this, it was not all bad, Nietzsche in particular, while I do not agree with him, he is worthy of study and refutation - he is one of those philosophers who will always be a challenge. As for the rest, some of what thinkers like Nietzsche, Sartre and Foucault thought - are, surprising interesting, I think however that it has been said better, earlier and with less pretence and obfuscation.

The subject of ethics has only really be considered in the last few months. Namely in the way of practical ethics (the subject and the book by Peter Singer). Much of this, I have to confess is a straightforward refutation of (which Singer himself admits) religious dogma that had been preserved into a secular context by the help of Kant and some other unthinking human prejudices. Much of my interest in ethics either stems from thinking about political problems or engaging with the information flowing from the mind and life sciences, much of contemporary philosophical ethics in comparison seems vapid, though I suspect this will change.

A far greater interest and itch that I developed was over epistemology. I have always been interested in procedures, methods and what counts as evidence. So, it was to be expected that I would find the subject interesting. Again ironically, or perhaps because of this I have tried to explore epistemology in ways that are socially relevant. My term for this - everyday epistemology is concerned with rational rules of belief acceptance. How to assess, judge, accept or reject sources and the reliable rules and methods which govern this, all in the field of religion, politics and ethics. Three subjects that generate great conflict and division. Much of which I believe, as Russell said - require clarity and coolness and clear thinking.

Early on I seemed to gravitate away from the concerns of traditional epistemology which perhaps have been characterised nearly all epistemologists since Descartes. I did not find the Cartesian project interesting, nor much of the work of Ayer or Russell. Popper has some very interesting things to say but is more engaged with philosophy of science (a topic I have tried to steer clear from this year) but, I became almost by accident very much interested in the ideas of one Nicholas Rescher. A prolific American philosopher (over nearly a hundred books) a truly systematic thinker (pragmatic idealism) and someone who has seems to have thought about everything and in in the process has built up a truly comprehensive system of rational inquiry and thought.

The ideas of Quine and one of his students (Penelope Maddy Second Philosophy) were and still are being absorbed and thought about. This, together with Rescher is an epistemology that is rational and objective; empiricist and practical; confident and realist while still fallible - willing to role up the sleeves as it were and get down to work. It is this truly pragmatic character - an epistemology friendly to science and interested in real problems -not the airy, abstract and effete worries of the problems of scepticism that trouble so many. Though, one must ask - how much of this is a temperamental thing rather than philosophic?

Then, finally, we come to religion. That subject that has engaged me these last three years, and whose study and consideration lead me to university in the first place. Well on one level, it was its swan song -its philosophic one anyway. Well, what do you expect when you read David Hume?

Hume who the spoof philosophical lexicon has as meaning: “To commit to the flames, bury, or otherwise destroy a philosophical position, as in "That theory was humed in the 1920s."

Hume the great infidel has probably mounted the most severest assault on the intellectual foundations of religion. While I was quite familiar (from other writers) about his arguments against design and miracles, I found when reading him directly that many ideas I had about the subjects (criticising the design argument) that I thought original - no chance - Hume had it down first. However, what was most striking this year surprising was his argument from evil. This argument, which I have long considered a theological problem and thus not especially interesting, was in the hands of Hume to prove devastating to the theistic project.

The further irony, a happy one, was that I had the good fortune to have as tutor not only a deeply religious observer but a deeply serious philosopher. A fine example that you should never judge by appearances. My first impression - a lazy metaller PHD student - turned out to be something quite different. Indefatigable in argument, prodigious in output, almost preternaturally self-assured and seems to have read and considered everything from early Christian history to German philosophy (in German) as comfortable talking about Russell’s Principia Mathmatica to Chomsky’s assault on the behaviourist language thesis, to questions about the idea that non-human animals do not have natural languages. The long hours of dispute and conversation provided ample proof of Hitchens’ notion that one of the conditions of light is heat - that argument and disagreement are necessarily for progress and insight. But I have an insight of my own, in order to learn, you should learn not only learn from people you disagree with but spend as much time as possible with them. The great thing about having a tutor like that is that your own ignorance and inconsistency is quickly exposed. You quickly learn two vital things - know what you going to say and why before you say it; secondly, admit to owning up to things you know nothing about.

As of now, I am taking a break from philosophy (kind of) looking at Islamic history, the brain, and philosophy of history as well as history in general. I will have a few months of reading, and summer indulgences before starting my second year, where I hope to redouble my efforts in politics and philosophy. While acknowledging that people have their own project and passions many of which are more worthy of respect than mine - I can agree with Aristotle that the good life (for me) is the philosophic life, the life of reflection and inquiry.

1 comment:

Yul_B said...

Knowing more and more about less and less...

Nietzsche, "The Future of our Educational Institutions"

"For centuries it has been an understood thing that one alluded to scholars alone when one spoke of cultured men; but experience tells us that it would be difficult to find any necessary relation between the two classes to-day. For at present the exploitation of a man for the purpose of science is accepted everywhere without the slightest scruple. Who still ventures to ask, What may be the value of a science which consumes its minions in this vampire fashion? The division of labour in science is practically struggling towards the same goal which religions in certain parts of the world are consciously striving after,--that is to say, towards the decrease and even the destruction of learning. That, however, which, in the case of certain religions, is a perfectly justifiable aim, both in regard to their origin and their history, can only amount to self-immolation when transferred to the realm of science. In all matters of a general and serious nature, and above all, in regard to the highest philosophical problems, we have now already reached a point at which the scientific man, as such, is no longer allowed to speak. On the other hand, that adhesive and tenacious stratum which has now filled up the interstices between the sciences--Journalism--believes it has a mission to fulfil here, and this it does, according to its own particular lights--that is to say, as its name implies, after the fashion of a day-labourer.

"It is precisely in journalism that the two tendencies combine and become one. The expansion and the diminution of education here join hands. The newspaper actually steps into the place of culture, and he who, even as a scholar, wishes to voice any claim for education, must avail himself of this viscous stratum of communication which cements the seams between all forms of life, all classes, all arts, and all sciences, and which is as firm and reliable as news paper is, as a rule. In the newspaper the peculiar educational aims of the present culminate, just as the journalist, the servant of the moment, has stepped into the place of the genius, of the leader for all time, of the deliverer from the tyranny of the moment. Now, tell me, distinguished master, what hopes could I still have in a struggle against the general topsy-turvification of all genuine aims for education; with what courage can I, a single teacher, step forward, when I know that the moment any seeds of real culture are sown, they will be mercilessly crushed by the roller of this pseudo-culture? Imagine how useless the most energetic work on the part of the individual teacher must be, who would fain lead a pupil back into the distant and evasive Hellenic world and to the real home of culture, when in less than an hour, that same pupil will have recourse to a newspaper, the latest novel, or one of those learned books, the very style of which already bears the revolting impress of modern barbaric culture--"