Saturday, April 21, 2007


Having undertaken some picturesque voyages around twitchers, kayaks and hats, Diana, squirrels, Kellogs, Jeff and Amanda, the Cannes Film Festival and, most poignantly, lawn darts, this blog seems to be returning safely to its home port of thought experimentation. My commenters are at their best and most prolific on philosophical matters like evil, sanctity and the wilderness. (Okay you are also at your best and most prolific about black cherry yoghurts, but we can take those posts as R & R ports where we rest prior to the next stage of the voyage.) So, I conclude, it is time to say something about philosophy itself. I don't go all the way with my friend - a distinguished thinker who would probably not wish to be named in this context - when he says philosophy is just arguments about arguments or that it is little more than a way of finding good reasons to hold utterly conventional views. But I do go quite a long way. I don't think Daniel Dennett, for example, is a philosopher at all, but merely a flunky at the court of secular, materialist scientism. He's just there to assure Dawkins and friends that they are wonderful in every way. I find no sense of exploration or meditation in Dennett. Much academic philosophy is like this and I am constantly disappointed when, having read the works of hyper-intelligent philosophers, I find they are, in the real world, amazingly, well, unamazing. Perhaps philosophy necessarily inspires conventional views, but surely it should also inspire wonder in at least some form. My problem is, I think, that I got Wittgenstein at an early age. I don't mean I got him in any sense that an academic would find acceptable, I mean I grasped something - a style, an attitude - that lay at the core of his thought. He says he writes the same sentence over and over again and I think I saw what it was at once. The contents of this sentence can be shown but not exactly explained. For example, he says somewhere that the one thing in the world we can say with certainty is not a metre long is the standard metre bar in Paris. And, in Culture and Value, 'Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I express has its meaning.' And also, 'For the place I really have to get to is a place I must already be at now.' True philosophy is a system of metaphors, a way of talking about something that cannot be discussed at all. In this context, dear commenters, your thoughts are much closer to philosophy than most academic works. They seem to be attempts to find the place you are already at. I am flattered that you make the attempt in my presence.


  1. I am aware that philosophers might point out that I am talking only about Wittgenstein's earlier philosophy and ignoring his later work. If so, then fine, but, to be honest, I have never found this distinction entirely convincing. I think it is made with such enthusiasm because it allows academics to dismiss the earlier work as replete with metaphysics. But its absence from the later work is consistent with his view that such things cannot actually be discussed.

  2. Some months ago I gave an alternative definition of philosophy which was perhaps a little in jest but not too much, with academic philosophy probably the specific target:
    'Philosophy is the creation of mental problems, the solution to which is forbeidden unless it is seen that the solution gives birth to more problems.'
    Philosophy is meant to be the love of wisdom, but it seems often to amount to love of words, though I think love in this context probably inappropriate, wallowing in words more apt. I'm dipping into Daisetsu Suzuki's Mysticism Christian & Buddhist at the moment, and this seems apt:
    "As long as they take up language first and try to adjust all human experiences to the requirements of language instead of the opposite, they will have their problems unsolved."
    And a quote from an interview with the mischievous Victor Pelevin who certainly at his finest has a wonderful sense of exploration:
    "Somebody could say that Eastern philosophy denies that it exists while Western philosophy pretends that it exists. A lower mind–like mine–might add that the real Western philosophy is "money talks bullshit walks" while the real Eastern philosophy is "ultimately money walks too," written in small font under "money talks." "

  3. When you put the right words together after each other then you get ideas and when you get enough ideas together in a row then you get philosophy which is the Darwinist evolution of the words ensuring their own survival at the macro level. And the strongest ideas and philosophies eat up the weak littler ones which have failed to adapt to the reality environment which proves it.

  4. For me a philosophy that inspires wonder is from Marc Chagall. A friend of mine was close to Chagall for the last ten years of his life. One day he found himself in Chagall's atelier - the artist was very protective of his private work place. My friend was amazed to see many paintings all around the walls in various stages of completion. Some seemed to him to be finished.

    "Marc, how do you know when a painting is finished?"
    "Well I take it and place it amongst the flowers in my garden and if it looks right it is finished."

  5. Is philosophy that ceases to inspire wonder, still philosophy. Or is the philosopher who ceases wonder, still a philosopher.
    The simple answer to both is Yes. A philosophy that ceases to inspire, did inspire once. While the philosopher is now dead. The act of wonder is part of what it is to be human.
    And on your other best, I wonder about salmon wrapped in prosciutto with peas mint and cream, Why ruin a perfectly good bit of fish.

  6. Agree with your assessment of academic philosophers doing their quadrilles around the obvious, but what about Roger Scruton? He takes on big tough questions e.g Islamism, Wagner and so on. But then the small-minded Academy evidently couldn't cope with him. So he farms and hunts in Virginia instead.

  7. "True philosophy is a system of metaphors, a way of talking about something that cannot be discussed at all."

    That's about right. Which makes the phrase "systematic philisophy" an oxymoron. Philosophy is what's left after you discover the discoverable. It's what science cannot prove or disprove.

    Part of the problem is that we think our minds can grasp anything, but they can't. Our minds can grasp a set number of patterns. We grasp things by relating them to those patterns, which are metaphors. If a fitting metaphor can't be found to describe something, then it can't be grasped. We try anyhow.

    Religion is a philosophy that tries to fit the totality of the universe into a personal metaphor, God being the personal agent behind all things. The best religious philosophers have understood that the metaphor won't hold, that God, or the truth of why the universe exists, is ineffable.

    I liken religion to that old joke about the man searching for his keys. Another man comes by and asks him what he's doing. "Looking for my keys" he replies. The second man helps him at his task, but after a time asks him "are you sure you dropped them here?" "No, I dropped them over there" the man explains.
    "But why are you searching for them over here" the stranger asks. "Because the light is better over here" he replies.

    We look for God in the personal because that's the only way our minds can grasp "Him", even though like the sages we realize that "He" can't be found there.

    Philosophy is looking for things in places where they cannot be found.

  8. I guess by philosophy you're talking about epistemology.

    It seems to me that the history of western epistemology is the attempt to show that what we know to be true (or want to be true) by common sense can also be proven by reason.

  9. the Wittgenstein quotations remind me of Wallace Stevens, a similar mental attitude, of the simplicity at the heart of things, and the compexity of our situation.

    We live beyond our intellectual means; a fact acknowledged by men like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein - that to be human is to be finite within infinity; so to stake out your intellectual terrain and say "this is everything that is, the definitive version", is presumptuous. It is also, however, human, to mistake oneself for god.

    Much better, being finite, to write & think out of one's limitation, weakness, poverty. For this, imagery and aphorisms and irony are appropriate, more so than Kantian relentlessness.

    Who seems more profound, to offer more truth, a writer of fragments and failure like Kafka (or Beckett), or a writer of boundless self-confidence, like C.S. Lewis, with his kindergarten theology?

  10. Duck/Amanda/andrew

    Such cynicism. Much as with the post below on evil, we see impressive minds rushing to assure us it's all artificial, useless or futile, but also as with that post you skip over the question of why we are inexorably driven to pondering all these questions in the first place. Do you believe mastering the Hegelian dialectic confers survival advantages?

    I feel like I am in the presence of talented artists who have committed their lives to producing works that prove art is meaningless.

  11. Peter,
    That's the nicest thing you've ever said about me! Thanks.

  12. I'd have to have been an idiot to have missed the last few weeks. Pressure, pressure.

    Bryan, your comment on philosophers and philosophy strikes the right note.

  13. the unexamined life is not worth living. the examined life, however, is fraught with epiphanies, some of which are painful indeed.

    art is the solace. Stoppard, who's had more to say of a philosophical nature than any other living playwright ("Arcadia," "Travesties," "Jumpers," "the Invention of Love," "The Coast of Utopia") is my model these days.

    love is also good, but art lasts.

  14. Reality is beyond, a wise man once said to me. Beyond religion, beyond philosophy, art or any human striving. I guess this is what great thinkers instinctively understand. Very few of us get it straight away, some never get it, and most of us, perhaps, muddle and struggle around it. Andrew mentioned Daisetsu Suzuki. I've found his namesake Shunryu Suzuki quite helpful as a guide.

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  16. Your recent posts, Bryan, remind me of Sunday morning religious TV. Ostensibly about current affairs, it soon becomes clear that the issues under discussion are simply a cypher to communicate a religious message. Everything begins normally enough, and then, with increasingly frequency, all the usual dippy religious terms begin to enter the discourse: wilderness, sanctity, the sacred, wonder, original sin, and then the big G-man himself.

    Philosophy should inspire wonder in some form? What you really mean, Bryan, is that we should experience wonder at the glory of God's creation. Indeed. Let us praise Him.

  17. I preferred the dipper. I think I've always known what your target is, but it's usually a subtle theme; a groundwater flow rather than surface run-off.

  18. I tend towards philosophers who don't pretend we have all the answers. After reading Marx for a while in my late teens it was a total relief when i came across Schopenhauer-who at the time inspired a kind of nihilistic rush of energy.
    Right now i'm really into John gray's stuff, which is very similar to Schopenhauer but with a political twist. Although i really like Buddhist philosophy in that it talks about solving the internal before you try to recreate the external- which inspires wonder similar to schopenhauer and gray by not banging on so much about human importance.

  19. Perhaps philosophy necessarily inspires conventional views, but surely it should also inspire wonder in at least some form

    The likeliest (in fact, the appropriate) emotion upon discovering a refutation of skepticism, say, is relief. Discovering a refutation of skepticism would be a paradigm of philosophy; philosophy needn’t produce wonder to be philosophy.

  20. I find sceptical philosophers are, paradoxically, more life affirming. Conventional thought is so reason and science based that it zaps all enjoyment and spontaneity (humanity?) out of life.
    In contrast, Schopenhauer saw art and love as being more important than logic.

  21. Interesting post, Bryan. I suppose I might as well contribute my pennyworth.

    Oh dear, I can't think of anything to say.

    No, no, hold on...Yes...I've got it: Philosophy for me (who else?), a matter of temperament. And I, for one, simply can't ignore it. You see, because I am so unsure about everything (and I mean everything) that I am naturally drawn to activities that allow me to wallow in perplexity, while at the same time providing a modicum of respite from my workaday neuroses. So, I admit it: I am self-indulgent. Of course, there are other ways I could calm my nerves, but I have a family now, and responsibilities.

    And by the way, you seem a bit waspish lately, Gordon.

  22. Academic philosophy has come to see itself as a kind of research science. This has led to a tendency towards specialization and a narrowing of focus onto the sort of question it’s possible to write clever articles about (where "clever" means "showing analytical rigor" and does not mean "exhibiting profound insight").

    Real progress has been made on a number of technical (and genuinely interesting) questions, and it's not simply a case of finding a obscure way of stating the obvious, but many people are rightly frustrated that a lot of the questions that were traditionally the province of philosophy have been ruled out of bounds.

    I don't think we should say that Dennett isn't a philosopher. We can regret that academic philosophy has lost its sense of wonder and shrunk from many of the big questions without saying that what remains isn't philosophy at all. We have to be realistic; we don't know how to teach people to have amazing thoughts or be profound, so we shouldn't be surprised if academic philosophy turns out to be, well, academic.

    Bryan (and others) may be interested to hear that amongst many of my academic philosopher friends the general consensus on Dennett is that he's embarrassing himself in his crusade with Dawkins. Dawkins' latest book is full of the kind of fallacies that a good undergraduate training in philosophy knocks out of you (you may not learn the meaning of life in a philosophy tutorial but there's a lot to be said for learning to spot a bad inference). However, despite his ex cathedra tone the fact is Dawkins is an philosophical amateur (and one who hasn't done the reading because he's convinced he has nothing to learn from it anyway). But as for Dennett, the consensus seems to be that "He knows better."

  23. I must say, Bryan, that while I liked your book "Understanding the Present" a great deal, I felt somewhat let down by your introduction of Wittgenstein as a proposed solution to the issue of the loss of meaning that is the end result of the scientific materialist philosophy kicked off by the Enlightenment. At the time I read the book, I didn't "get" Wittgenstein at all.

    But just recently, Philosophy Now ran a special Wittgenstein issue, and the articles did help me to make more sense of him. The explanation in PN (which I also see is in Wikipedia as an apparent alternative analysis of the Tractatus) is that the book is (to use the phrase from Wikipedia) "deeply ironic", and intended to show the limits of logic in understanding the world. So while the logical positivists thought that it supported their line that theology is essentially nonsense, most did not realise that the argument went further and attacked the very foundation on which their own attack on theology was based.

    However, even if my understanding of him is now close to yours (and correct me if you disagree,) I still am not sure how as a practical matter his approach can be seen as a hope for a re-invigoration of a sense of meaning, purpose and soul in modern society.

    Wittgenstein may provide a convincing argument against putting all of one's faith in logic and a purely materialistic interpretation of the universe, but this alone doesn't provide any positive suggestion as to the type of "faith" one can have to help make sense of the world.

    On the issue of whether the modern world can live successfully without a religious or metaphysical understanding of humans at all, I think the example of purely moral or ethical reasoning is useful to consider. I think that the modern irreligious youngster just assumes an ill-defined kind of utilitarianism as being "obviously" the default position everyone should have.

    As a person who finds this a hopelessly flawed moral philosophy, I have at times thought it would be good if it were possible to reach a universally agreed alternative that did not have to have some unprovable metaphysical underpinnings to it. That is, a universal moral system that could please both the atheist, the agnostic and the the religious.

    However, the older I get the more I am doubtful that this is ever possible. I like Kant because he made the attempt, but even then, if I understand him correctly, he came around to arguing that as a practical matter, the system really only made sense if metaphysical ideas are re-introduced.

    As the modern atheist will have nothing of metaphysics, and the great religions are no better than social clubs if they finally give up all of their core understanding of humanity and its purpose, I don't see how this is going to be resolved any time soon.

    Hope this hasn't rambled too much.

  24. ...when he says philosophy is just arguments about arguments or that it is little more than a way of finding good reasons to hold utterly conventional views...

    I see philosophy, [and have studied the usual eminences formally], as an attempt to explain the already explained, such explanation not meeting with the mindset of a section of the populace who then become "philosophers".

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