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A Philosophy Lecture from the Good Old Days

Recalled by Andrew Belsey.

Some years ago, probably in the early 1960s, I attended a course of philosophy lectures, but I am unable to recall who gave them or even where they were given. At the time I took extensive notes, and recently I came across my notes of one of the lectures. They are, I think, pretty well a verbatim record, and I reproduce them here as they form something of a historic document, shedding considerable light on the development of recent philosophy in this country. – Andrew Belsey.

A Philosophy Lecture

Sometimes you might say “There’s a snake in the grass”. At other times you might not say this. This is interesting – strangely interesting in a rather queer way, I think. But whether you say “There’s a snake in the grass” or whether you don’t say this – or whether you say “There’s not a snake in the grass”, or whether you remain totally silent, or whether you lean over at 45 degrees with your fingers behind your ears – none of this matters to me. It might matter to you but that’s a different matter. But if I were to say or to do any of these things, this would matter to me. It probably wouldn’t matter to you, but this is not interesting, not even in a rather queer way. But it would certainly matter to me. If I was to say “There’s a snake in the grass” and there was a snake in the grass, then I would speak truly, although at the risk of involving myself in considerable danger if the snake was a poisonous one. But if I was to say “There’s a snake in the grass” and there was not a snake in the grass I should be saving myself from physical danger though at the cost of telling an untruth. It is clear that I should be involved in a moral paradox. Now paradoxes are not to be talked about lightly, so I will leave this aspect of the problem to your logic lecturer, of whom I have heard good reports. So shall we therefore turn our attention to the moral aspect of the problem? The simple answer is no. Philosophers have nothing to say on moral problems. Not all my colleagues would agree with me. No doubt you have heard or will hear dissenting voices from some of the younger members of staff, especially those who wear beards or those strange thin blue canvass trousers that all appear to belong to someone called Jean. Of course, they do not wear their beards in the same sense that they wear their trousers – indeed, some of them wear their trousers in at least two senses. And probably at most two, but that is a question we can perhaps return to at some other time. Here, we are concerned with a moral problem – should I save myself by lying? But this is not a philosophical question. It is not even a question. It has only the appearance of a question. Some of my younger colleagues would presume to answer it – to give the appearance of an answer, that is. They would, however, simply be expressing their attitude towards one way of behaving rather than another, and that is not a proper philosophical task. Offering such moral feelings and the associated exhortations is not for philosophers but for what some of my younger colleagues would call sky-pilots, and for the R.S.P.C.A. I shall therefore pass over this question without further ado while I return to my theme, the snake in the grass. Even if I do speak truly when I say “There’s a snake in the grass” I do not involve myself in just one kind of danger. Speaking, and danger, are not as simple as that. When I say “There’s a snake in the grass” I may mean “There’s some grass, somewhere, with a snake in it”, and in this case the danger to me is only potential. Its actualisation depends on the relative positions in space and time of the grass and myself, not to mention the inclinations and appetites of the snake. But again, when I say “There’s a snake in the grass” I may mean “Lo! There! A snake in the grass!” – while I point to a long writhing wriggling creature emerging from the grass nearby. In this case the danger is imminent. Or again, I may mean “There is a snake in the grass” – I may have just caught sight of a flash of slithering flesh and use this fact of perception to contradict your claim that there’s no snake in the grass. Or again, I may mean something quite different, like “The Vice-Master has been selling the College short again on the Abdominal Council”. This is what is sometimes called a metaphorical use of the expression “There’s a snake in the grass” – although if you’d ever seen the Vice-Master you might not agree that it was metaphorical. However, the investigation of the distinction between literal and metaphorical uses of expressions would take us deep into the realms of metaphysics – so deep, I fear, that we should never return to the land of rational discourse. I shall, therefore, leave this particular little problem in the hands of your aesthetics lecturer. Back in the land of rational discourse what I have shown is that when I say “There’s a snake in the grass” I may speak truly or falsely and that when I am speaking truly this is not simply because there’s a snake in the grass, but rather its complicatedly because there’s a snake in the grass. There’s more than one way of killing a cat and more than one way of being a snake in the grass. I don’t just mean that the snake may be a grass snake, viper, cobra, black mamba, rattlesnake or boa constrictor, or that the grass may be fescue, couch, alfalfa, long, short, green, dry, sloping, smooth or covered in daisies. I mean that the snake may not even be a real snake (metaphysics creeping in again) and that even if it is a snake there’s more than one way of being in the grass. No, I don’t care what sort of grass it is, as I’ve already explained. It’s all a question of what sort of being it is. We must not allow ourselves to be misled by this, however. When I was young (yes, I was once) I remember a distinguished lecturer in this very room talking about being. “Being being what it is and not another thing, it is,” he would say. I used to puzzle for a long time over this remark before its simple profundity broke over me like a new birth – indeed, it was this that set me on course to become a philosopher. You will immediately see the relevance of this remark to the snake in the grass. The snake, being in the grass, is in the grass. Now, is its being in the grass its being in the grass or its being in the grass or even its being in the grass? This of course has no bearing on the question of whether it is in the grass. That has been sorted out already. Nor is it a question of its being or not being. That too has been sorted out. Or perhaps I should say: it’s being sorted out. But whether questions have a being in the sense that snakes have a being is an interesting question – queerly interesting in an almost metaphysical way. So now we’ve moved from saying “There’s a snake in the grass” to the question of being – of being a snake, of being in the grass, of being a question, of being being. This is getting rather far into metaphysics again, so I think this is a suitable place to stop today. Good morning.

© Andrew Belsey 1991

Andrew Belsey lectures at University of Wales College of Cardiff.

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