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Tallis in Wonderland

On Failing to be a Philosopher

Raymond Tallis thinks through what not thinking things through involves.

There are many ways of failing to be a philosopher. The most efficient is not to bother being a philosopher in the first place. It is the strategy of choice for the vast majority of the population. Some of the things that exercise philosophers – or seem to do so – are of limited interest to the man or woman in the street, the pub, the lounge, or the kitchen. Agonizing over whether objects are logical constructions out of sense data, whether mind is localized to individual subjects or is spread throughout the universe, or even whether we are free agents, is a minority pastime.

In my decades as a doctor, I met many admirable patients and colleagues, but less than a handful evinced any interest in the philosophical topics that have preoccupied me since I was a teenager. The Socratic claim that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, if ‘examination’ here means ‘philosophical examination’, would imply that most lives are not worth living. This dismissal does scant justice to the many people whose lives are not only worth living but who have coped courageously with being examined by life.

Even so, anyone who takes philosophical ideas seriously must regret their negligible presence in both the private and public realms of daily life. There is the dream of philosophers – more common perhaps than many philosophers would admit to – that philosophy might be influential – not necessarily directly, but upstream of the collective conversation which otherwise seems to be conducted without the assistance of their cognitive labours. This perspective is beautifully expressed in John Stuart Mill’s essay on Jeremy Bentham:

“But [Bentham and Coleridge] were destined to… show that speculative philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the long run overbears every other influence save those which it must itself obey.”

There are many reasons why philosophy seems to have been largely squeezed out of public discourse. It often appears amateurish and armchair-bound compared with science. That’s when it is not forbiddingly technical or in danger of losing its way in the echo-chamber of academe (of which more presently), where the footfalls are footnotes. Its very scrupulousness demands a patience rare in an age when the Big Conversation is dominated by clickbait. Given that the leader of what is called ‘The Free World’ is a destructive, lying toddler elevated to office by Reality Television, the idea of the philosopher as a Shelleyan ‘unacknowledged legislator of the world’ takes wishful thinking to new heights.

It is disheartening to think how so much careful argument conducted by some of the most painstaking thinkers of the present day goes unheard. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), one of the Fathers of the Church, once complained that it was impossible to go for a haircut without someone wanting to engage him in a discussion about some finer point of doctrine. Those were the days! And just how distant they are may be measured by the loud sound of barrel-scraping emitted by some academic philosophers obliged by the UK’s government research assessment exercise (now called the ‘Research Excellence Framework’) to earn marks – and departmental funds – by demonstrating the public ‘impact’ of their work.

There are other ways of failing to be a philosopher. One way is failing as a philosopher. Philosophers are supposed to be wise – it’s embedded in the job title – but many, even the greatest, have proved remarkably stupid.

The last century provided some spectacular instances of foolishness, and worse. The twentieth century had thinkers of genius who chose to be useful idiots for wicked political regimes. Martin Heidegger’s dalliance with Nazism and his refusal to ever fully acknowledge the horror of the Holocaust is the most notorious example. Perhaps less culpable, but no less idiotic, was Jean-Paul Sartre’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the horror of the left-wing totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Maoist China. When Albert Camus reminded the world how Communist utopian visions had ended in “slave camps [being established] under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy” (The Rebel), he was excommunicated from Sartre’s circle of true believers. And then there are the postmodern philosophers (did someone mention Jean Baudrillard?), whose critique of the idea of objective truth may have substantially contributed to the emergence of the ‘post-truth’ politics causing so much damage these days.

Not-Doing Philosophy

Arnold Rimmer
One of the galaxy’s great failures: Arnold Rimmer
Chris Barrie as A.J. Rimmer in Red Dwarf © BBC Studios/Discovery EMEA 2012

Enough already. Yes, even great philosophers can be foolish like the rest of us, while the overwhelming majority of humanity manages to be daft, or endeavours to be wise, without the assistance of philosophy. But there are yet other ways of failing to be a philosopher. Here the example of Arnold Rimmer, the egocentric coward in the spoof space odyssey Red Dwarf, is helpful. Rimmer repeatedly fails the engineering exams that will gain him the promotion he believes he deserves. The key to his failure is his elaborate revision schedule, with its colour-coded study periods, rest periods, and self-testing time. The weeks he wastes on perfecting this schedule leave no time for actual revision. Failure is consequently inevitable. Rimmer’s approach to revision is a perfect model for the various ways in which we ‘do things in a non-doing it sort of way’.

There are many ways of doing philosophy in a non-doing it sort of way; of dealing in thoughts without truly thinking them. There are equally many ways of hiding this from ourselves. One way, perhaps, is to be a professional philosopher.

To the uninformed observer, university philosophers seem to be philosophers for at least five days a week, eight hours each day. But most of those hours are occupied with administration, setting and marking essays and exams, and other aspects of organizing the delivery of teaching to an endless succession of students who also require pastoral care. This is entirely honorable and truly useful, but there is a considerable distance between engaging with the mystery of the world and preparing a course of lectures (with supporting handouts and bibliography) whose primary aim is to boil down the thoughts of the philosophers on the curriculum, with an emphasis on scholarly accuracy and (if the teacher is any good) accessibility.

Hold on, you may ask, don’t academics have time set aside for thinking – or (to use the term that makes it respectable) ‘research’? Unfortunately, the primary aim of research seems to be publication or other ‘outputs’. Publication involves a good deal of activity that could qualify as Rimmer-philosophizing: proof-reading, checking references, correcting the numbering of notes, fiddling with this sentence and that, respecting the house style of target journals, multiple submissions, and so on. But the emphasis on publication presents other, less obvious, barriers to the true philosophizing that’s driven by an ache for fundamental understanding. Thinkers, as Nietzsche said, run the risk of being mere ‘reacting machines’. Academic outputs typically respond to other academic outputs. The beginning and end of the scholar’s contribution – to a conversation sometimes like a parliament in which everyone is talking and nobody is listening – is uncomfortably accidental and inconsequential. ‘A preliminary critique of a neo-Smithian critique of a Jonesian externalism’ is far from a response to the mystery of one’s existence. Academic philosophers seem to settle too easily for covering a small part of a long journey that has no clear destination.

Adding a few grains to the towering ant-hill of academic publications does, of course, deliver secondary satisfactions: winning an argument (however small); adding to the curriculum vitae; increasing one’s reputation (as measured by the number of citations of one’s work); career advancement; and pleasing one’s academic paymasters. These gratifications seem to compensate for (or hide) the fading of the dream of narrowing the gap between what one is, what one knows, and what one understands, or the hope of a revelation of the nature of things.

Not-Living Philosophy

Academic philosophy is an easy target. Much criticism of philosophy overlooks the rich primary and secondary literature that has been generated by honest professional toilers in the field. After all, the alternatives – each of us starting from scratch in a solitary pursuit of truth, uninformed by the thoughts of others, or as part of an unmoderated babble of amateurs – are not in the slightest bit attractive. More importantly, criticism of academe overflies something more profound: the vexed relationship between the processes of thought on the one hand and the visible products of thought on the other.

This is a relationship that preoccupied the great essayist and poet Paul Valéry. He described the thinker as an ‘imposter’. The frozen contrail of books and articles coming out of a life of thought gives a false impression of the consciousness of the writer. A finished work has little to do with the chaotic, endlessly interrupted and self-interrupted processes that went into its composition. The thinker is reified – made into a thing – and so, too, is the reader. The truth – an exchange between a distracted, butterflying writer and a distracted, butterflying reader – is concealed. A great fat book, or a row of books, is a deposit account which cannot be cashed as a current account of intellectual experience. This failure is a distant reflection of the fact that quasi-Platonic eternal thoughts cannot be realized in the actual thinking of token thoughts by actual thinkers.

And so we arrive at the subtlest mode of doing philosophy in a non-doing it sort of way: arguing for or accepting conclusions that are not truly imagined, even less in any way lived. What, after all, would it be like truly to think that objects are logical constructions out of sense data; or that mind is spread out throughout the universe; or that humans do not have agency? That these questions are rarely asked betrays the assumption that the work is done when a conclusion is reached. On the contrary, doing philosophy in a truly philosophical way only begins with arriving at the outcomes of arguments.

Taking philosophical ideas seriously, really thinking one’s conclusions, must – or should – mean fully imagining, even trying to live, them. Living them should include sharing them with one’s own circle, not just fellow panelists at a symposium. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of philosophers (your columnist included) rarely considers trying to convert friends, colleagues or nearest and dearest to their particular metaphysical standpoint – even supposing, that is, that they have converted themselves. We should probably be glad that (say) panpsychists and materialists don’t defend their opposing theories about the nature of mind by burning each other’s villages. However, the widespread lack of interest in convincing non-professionals of our views raises questions of how serious we are in holding them. It is as if we don’t take our own conclusions entirely seriously. Kierkegaard famously compared certain thinkers to the legendary Luneburg pig, digging up truffles he throws over his shoulder for others to eat – a compelling metaphor for philosophers publishing conclusions that others (including their future selves) have to imagine and live.

There are so many ways of failing to be a philosopher, however much philosophizing one does. At the heart of the problem is that lifelong distraction we call living.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2019

Raymond Tallis’s book, Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of the World has recently been published by Agenda.

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