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essais à la façon de montaigne: philosophy

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Patricia Churchland - the right stuff

I have to say that I have never seen in a discussion in science at a seminar, for example, the viciousness and mean-spiritedness that I regularly witnessed in philosophy.

Patricia Churchland


I’m not a philosopher, nor am I an academic, a scientist, a pro journalist or anything more than a dilettante, so clearly I’m superior to and able to pass judgement on all of these types. As a fairly avid but unfocussed reader from an early age I didn’t really encounter philosophy until my late teens, with Friedrich Nietzsche. Naturally I found this pretty strong but exciting stuff, especially as an anti-authoritarian auto-didact, which is how I saw myself. Nietzsche’s various denigrations always had the appearance of sophistication, no matter how obscure they could sometimes be. He was the smart-alec to end all smart-alecs, and I was particularly keen on his take on Christianity, a religion I personally found as meaningless as any other. The ever self-assertive Nietszche naturally saw enslavement to a supernatural Lord as perniciously anaemic, and enslavement to other more human-based ideologies wasn’t much better, but this seemed to leave him with a commitment problem, a lack of faith in anything but his shifting, carping self. I was also a little unnerved by the angry, almost ranting tone that he seemed to be battling, sometimes unsuccessfully, to contain. I read other ‘popular’ philosophical books, such as Camus’ The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus, and a selection of Schopenhauer’s writings [you might say that my intellectual life was being dictated by Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics], and I even had a go at a couple of Plato’s dialogues. I only gradually became aware that there were ‘issues’ in philosophy rather than just a bunch of more or less stimulating thinkers [and I’m still rather more attracted by interesting personalities in philosophy than by its subject matter]. In any case my interest in philosophy was largely peripheral, sometimes coming more to the fore through personal friendships with intellectual types. I had a go at Kant, Hegel and Heidegger and found them largely impenetrable: much easier to read about their philosophies through the work of more lucid commentators than to tackle their own writings. This led me to Anglo-American philosophy and its battle with the Continentals. I was in favour of the former simply for its lucidity and its modesty. I read books and essays by the likes of David Pears, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, Elizabeth Anscombe, Bernard Williams, Wilfred Sellars, Nelson Goodman and Philippa Foot, as well as tackling, and frankly being quite exhilarated by, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, but even so I didn’t see philosophy as being central to my life, and I often wondered if the ‘enlightenment’ I got from reading these philosophers was worth the considerable effort required. Perhaps the problem lay with me.

Meanwhile I continued to read fiction and to dream of being a writer of some sort. In my mid-twenties I read a novel which had a major impact on me, The Magic Mountain [Der Zauberberg] by Thomas Mann. Its central character, Hans Castorp, was about my age at the time, and his ‘time out’ in a sanatorium in the Alps, doing little but reading, conversing with interesting people, and endlessly speculating, seemed a bit like the story of my own shiftless life, but the section of the book that most inspired me involved the hero’s reflections, gleaned from readings, on the origin of life, matter and the universe. The sorts of reflections that aren’t answered by philosophy, but rather by science. It suddenly occurred to me that my understanding of science was far more hazy than my understanding of philosophy, and that the questions that scientific inquiry ventured to answer were the really interesting questions, by and large. So I became a regular reader of Scientific American, the most prominent  popular science magazine of the time [one of the first articles I read there was about a new pandemic, AIDS, which might be about to sweep through the west], and I read my first full book on a science topic, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, which was causing much controversy at the time [the early eighties]. Since then, my interest in scientific questions and answers has far outweighed my interest in philosophy, though my understanding in both areas has always been sketchy and full of holes.

So to return to the present. The other day a very bright almost 16 year-old, who is my sometime step-grand-daughter, told me that she hated philosophy [with all the black-and-white passion of the teen age], though people had told her it should be ‘just up her alley’. I felt naturally a bit defensive for that old, somewhat faded interest of mine [though I still read philosophy in dribs and drabs, and have links to philosophy blogs here], but I didn’t know how to begin to respond in a way that would have any impact on her.

What I would’ve liked to say is – go with whatever stimulates, provokes and excites you. Go with whatever draws insights and original thinking from you, or with whatever makes you want to learn or explore further. Try not to think in terms of categories [this is philosophy, this is history, this is science], try to think in terms of the wow factor – wow, so that’s how that works, that’s why she behaves like that, that’s why that war was fought, that’s how we got into this mess, etc. I would also say that there’s been a lot of boring and probably useless philosophical writing over the years, stuff that gets bogged down in argument and point-scoring rather than striving for insight. I also suspect that whole philosophical ‘categories’ constitute intellectual dead-ends, but I won’t try to justify that suspicion here. Unfortunately, philosophy as an academic discipline has become a little caught up with itself, with some philosophers being really uncomfortable about addressing a lay audience. When, very occasionally, I leave comments on philosophy blogs I’m usually completely ignored, especially by those academic-style philosophy blogs that use syllogisms a lot, and terms like ceteris paribus and mutatis mutandis. Still, there are other philosophy blogs that are more open and inviting, yet I’m often daunted at the very thought of commenting, perhaps because philosophers are always arguing. Sometimes you just want to learn rather than to argue, and with philosophy blogs/journals etc, often the only thing you learn is that x is good at arguing – or not, as the case may be.

With all this in mind I read approvingly of Patricia Churchland’s journey as a philosopher here, via Three Quarks Daily [a blog with more of the wow factor than just about any human being could cope with]. Churchland is very much a pro-science philosopher, and her latest book, Braintrust: what neuroscience tells us about morality, has the sort of title that attracts me much more than your standard philosophy text on ethics. I’m currently reading an updated version of Antonio Demasio’s Descartes’ Error, a book that treats of the neurophysiological bases of emotions and their influence on decision-making. These sorts of explorations take us so much further than the conceptual analyses that much philosophy has become bogged down in. I was also amused and sadly unsurprised to read that Churchland’s scientific colleagues [she recently went to ‘medical school’ – presumably that means some kind of university – to study the circuitry of the brain] have treated her much better than her philosophical ones. This can be explained, I think, in terms of tenuous orthodoxies that are based on numbers and power rather than evidence. We see this particularly in religions, when doctrines aren’t settled, and orthodoxy and heresy become matters to obsess over. Since there’s no evidence either way, and therefore no pathway of testing and verification, it all becomes a matter of power struggles, persuasiveness and sometimes violence. Philosophical disputation may be more low-key and contained than religious disputation, but it isn’t immune from these problems.

Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to philosophy was its re-presentation, over the last couple of centuries, as an academic discipline. This led to an obvious problem of insularity, a problem that earlier ‘natural philosophers’, going back to Aristotle, and including Epicurus, Lucretius and even David Hume, didn’t have to deal with. There’s much to be said for open borders and cross-fertilization, for nations as well as fields of intellectual inquiry. If this means that philosophy loses much of its distinctive character, then so be it. That distinctive character is of more recent vintage, and is perhaps more artificial in nature, than is generally admitted.


Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2012 at 10:01 am

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