Thursday, March 02, 2006

There is nothing useless to men of sense*

From the Times's 'Thunderer' a few days ago:

THE OXFORD philosopher, Sir Peter Strawson, died this week, full of years and honour. For decades, he had won golden opinions by his work on meaning. He was a fine man. Even so, his career had no meaning.

In Greek, philosophy means love of wisdom. It is widely assumed that philosophers are wise men who employ their learning to answer the ultimate questions: the existence of God, the good life, the fundamentals of politics. That was once true, but from the 17th century onwards, there was a steady retreat from the big questions.

Philosophers began to inquire how we can be sure that the external world exists (earlier philosophers had discussed this, but not exclusively). The answer is that we cannot, but that this does not matter. Asked what he thought of Bishop Berkeley’s anti-materialism, Dr Johnson kicked a stone. “I refute it thus, Sir.”

Then there was a further retreat, to analysis of language. How can we be sure that the meaning of words corresponds to reality? In his essay, “The Theory of Descriptions”, Bertrand Russell pondered the phrase: “The golden mountain does not exist”. If it does not exist, how can we talk about it?

The idea that men could wax eloquent about non-existent gold would come as no surprise to a high street bank manager, but that is not enough for philosophy. Russell thought that he had solved the problem. Strawson thought that he had proved him wrong by homing in on a crucial point in Russell’s argument: the phrase “the King of France is bald”.

In a popular guide to philosophy, C. E. M. Joad wrote that after a couple of hours with the hard philosophers, historical or literary works would seem so easy: like bounding along on a country walk after being freed from the weight of a heavy pack. Philosophy does sharpen the mind, but this newspaper’s Su Doku puzzles do too. On the questions that vitally concern mankind, Su Doku is as useful as Strawson.

At committee meetings, Strawson was often silent. His Times obituarist wondered whether “such gatherings provided better opportunities for the observation of folly than for the dispensation of philosophic wisdom”. Yet it is hard to believe that the discussions were anything like as foolish as an argument over the King of France’s baldness. As practised in the Russell-Strawson debate, philosophy had become nothing more than an argument between two bald men over a comb.

There’s a very funny scene in the first Austin Powers film, where Dr Evil has captured Austin.

Rather than just shooting his arch-enemy, Dr Evil has of course contrived an absurdly elaborate method of execution involving dipping Austin into a tank of deadly stingrays or something, thus affording the spy ample opportunity to escape and ultimately thwart his plans. Scott Evil, his son, is bemused - leading to the following exchange:

Dr Evil: All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism. [guard starts dipping mechanism] Close the tank!
Scott: Wait, aren't you even going to watch them? They could get away!
Dr Evil: No no no, I'm going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I'm just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Scott: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I'll get it, I'll come back down here, BOOM, I'll blow their brains out!
Dr Evil: Scott, you just don't get it, do ya?

This particular Thunderer just doesn't get it.

May the Gods preserve us from ‘usefulness’.

Virtually everything you ever learn anywhere is ‘useless’ if you are so strict, or so unimaginative and literal, about what ‘useful’ means.

Philosophers began to inquire how we can be sure that the external world exists ... The answer is that we cannot, but that this does not matter.

That's true enough: virtually everyone who takes a philosophy course ends up there.

But the journey, not the destination, is the point of studying philosophy.

*Jean de la Fontaine (a wise frog)


Oroborous said...

[T]he journey, not the destination, is the point of studying philosophy.

Also true of theology, for most people.
After all, "enlightened" isn't synonymous with "vastly knowledgeable".

However, the problem is that some people, a sizable minority, forget that there is a destination, and endlessly journey.

Brit said...

Why is that a problem?

It beats stamp-collecting.

Peter Burnet said...

For some time now I've been working on a philosophical proof that Harry and Skipper don't exist.

Almost there. I'll stay in touch.

Oroborous said...


Well, that was both pithy and wise.

You're right, given that it isn't a perfect world.