Friday, November 21, 2008

Philosophical pondlife

No sooner have I left the big house than it is invaded by crazed philosophers. I know a thing or two about crazed philosophers. There were plenty in the University of Bristol Philosophy Department (mid 1990s).

The majority of the undergraduates were as all majorities are: passable, unobtrusively eccentric, sitting shtum in seminars, hanging on for the holidays. But in that little intellectual pond swam three Big Fish, warily circling one another while pretending not to compete.

Each was very different in character. The showiest of the Big Fish - the puffer fish, if you like - was a huge, garrulous, likeable Jewish lad who I will call, for the sake of argument, Max. Max dominated every seminar, frequently overshadowing the actual professors (a mostly shy bunch, wholly unsuited to public performance) by filling the air with long, formless streams of verbiage, punctuated not with any clear full stops or commas, but with his catchphrase "so to speak" (pronounced sotespeek). Max was a constructor, an architect of grand, elusive theories that encompassed all areas of political, religious and metaphysical endeavour; dazzling intellectual mirages that vanished as soon as you tried to grasp them.

Max was the housewives' favourite, but the smart money was on the second Big Fish. Raj was the antithesis of Max; a diminutive Asian boy-man with a permanent grin. Raj spoke only when necessary, and when he did he was deadly. A no-nonsense and viciously sharp mathematician, Raj was born with Occam’s Razor buried in his frontal lobe. He was the pike of the pond.

The third Fish was me (well why else would I be telling this trueish story?). Lacking both Max’s improvisational genius and the concise brilliance of Raj, I was able to compete by being a generalist (degrees are very general), but more importantly because very early on I was fortunate enough to glimpse how philosophy, as it is taught in universities, works.

Though this is never explicitly stated, Western Philosophy is taught as a history of ever more ingenious failure. After the initial nods to Plato and Aristotle (easy, those), we jump hugely forward to the meaty epistemological stuff which begins with Descartes. From here on, all you need to know is that everyone showed that the last guy was wrong.

Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, every new theory is pregnant with its own refutation and the next thinker in the chain acts as midwife, until finally you end up with Wittgenstein and philosophy turns into hopeless poetry. The key is simply to apply this insight to every area of philosophy as it branches off – political philosophy, philosophy of mind or language or science or physics – mankind’s greatest minds only find ever more complex and narrowing ways of being wrong.

Do not become attached to any theory, each is but the warm thick slobber of frogspawn that grows like clotted water in the philosophical pond, waiting to be eaten or transformed.

Poor Max, he never saw this. Wasting his time on constructing what he thought were Theories of Everything, he mistook philosophical history for progress, when all philosophy is heading towards is an infinitely detailed Theory of Nothing. Which will be wrong. For the degree, the only things you need to construct are original versions of old refutations. You can't out-construct Spinoza, you can only demolish him. Raj and I saw that the Profs were looking for destruction; so Raj used a razor and I a clumsy sledgehammer, and we two alone ended up with Firsts. I had to share the prize with Raj, damn him, but at least Max only got a 2:1.


BP said...

Way to show off. What you're saying sounds something like postanalytic Rorty, except we've yet to meet the midwife to pragmatism.

But 'failure' is wrong. Philosophy isn't a ladder to conclusion but a swandive into questions.

David said...

Berkeley said everything worth saying, including the theory of relativity. Everything since is just commentary.

Simiain said...

The highlight of my university years was a brief moment of solidarity in contempt among the majority for a 'big fish'.

After another loud, lingering, ostentatious braying of a laugh at another of the lecturers heeelarious jokes, the shaven-headed, Stoke-on-Trent, State-school graduate next to me let out a faint but entirely audible "prick" that rang around the auditorium and to which the other 200 or so of us murmured quiet assent.