Pro and Contra

During a train journey last week I overheard a businessman talking into his phone. I thought he said ‘send me the end of year prophets.’ Considering that the reality was probably a little more prosaic led me to think about how these kind of perceptual tricks have always amused me ever since I spent a bit of time studying them at university. Having noted this latest instance down, I decided to write something about ‘aspect change’, or the phenomena of ‘how you look at something’ most famously demonstrated by the duck-rabbit. The problem of how we instantly perceive meaning in the world is a weird and fascinating subject – one of those grey areas where very few people have a handle on precisely what is going on. I used to think that the most interesting side of this subject was to do with scientific studies of consciousness and cognitive behaviour, but increasingly I’ve realised that it has other connotations in more abstract philosophy. So I sat down and spent the last three days writing about it.

As it turns out, I’ve started out with a long and fairly rambling consideration of the status of philosophy as a subject for full time education, and then ended up caught in a snowballing effect where some of my other interests have kept me writing about uses for philosophy and then back into further ramifications for the problems of meaning perception. It ended up being nothing to do with duck-rabbits or End of Year Prophets (wouldn’t that be a great band name?) but maybe it will prove stimulating to someone out there. This first part is fairly light reading, but as I go on I do descend into quoting from a few philosophical papers, and end up coming over all existential. I won’t post the full thing just yet, but will break it up into a couple of pieces, to allow for a little more clarity.

Back when I defaulted my way into university, I decided that I was going to study philosophy. Ostensibly, I did so to annoy my teachers and impress my girlfriend, but there was another reason for this choice that sat less comfortably within my personal assignments: I wanted to avoid being slotted into a ‘vocation’. I didn’t really know what philosophy was, but plenty of incredulous people said ‘what kind of job will that get you?’, and that sounded good to me. Careers fairs at school were like a kind of hell. “What do I see myself doing? I see myself looking out of window, and maybe taking some notes…” I had never wanted a job, and so I wasn’t about to train for one. In fact, the further I could get from that certain doom over those three years, the better things seemed to bode.

As it happened, doing philosophy at Southampton couldn’t have been a better choice for confirming my feelings about non-vocational training: the department was involved in an open slagging match with the Labour government, in which both sides postured over the status of education for education’s sake. My tutor, a ludicrously heavy smoker and forthright commentator on the philosophy of art, led the academic mob in arguing that the government should support education that had no obvious application. The suits didn’t like that, and wanted to see to it that courses such as philosophy could demonstrate ‘transferable skills’ that would be applicable across a range of careers. Later, a couple of years after I started working for Future Publishing, I was contacted by the department and asked to come back down to Southampton and show that, as a philosophy graduate, I had gone on to do something successful and interesting with my non-vocational education. I had, in the meantime, become a games journalist. Haha.

Still, I made with the media-blahblah and the course is still there, still teaching a remarkable similar curriculum almost a decade later. I can only assume that with the testimony of games journalists, advertising sales reps, and dissatisfied-looking teachers, that they somehow won the battle.

It has always struck me as something of a paradox that while I went in to the course looking for ethereal idealism, I came out viewing philosophy rather pragmatically. It seemed like something that really did have use in the rest of life, something that could be used to improve the way we think and act. Nevertheless I struggled to find a way to apply what I had learned. It sticks in my mind that, a few years into my work on magazines, one of my friends at Future said to his girlfriend at the time that I ‘put a lot of philosophy into game reviews’. I didn’t correct him, but inside I knew that I never actually put anything of what I had learned into my professional work, and that worried me.

So what had I learned? Were those years of marijuana-soaked study (in addition to the subsequent time I’ve spent with my nose in a philosophy book) a complete waste of time and resources? Perhaps not. I now see that despite my protestations, there were ‘transferable skills’ there all along, albeit skills that would be rather tricky to survey and chart in any useful fashion. The skills that were most obvious to me were private, personal skills of self-edification. This is what the academics had meant by education for education’s sake. The ability to read texts from different angles became second nature, while the capacity to annoy religious people with ceaseless tirades against their creed is often of benefit and amusement. Most importantly of all, I learned that words are best viewed as tools. To grasp this is to understand that people use words to achieve their goals, and that understanding what words people use, and how they use them, is the only way of finding out what they really want. Viewed through this lens, life becomes about deciding what you want and then working out how best to use language to get it.

Forlornly, I sometimes think that these smaller lessons of philosophy, the ones that stopped me from thinking along the default paths of everyday life, the ones about the importance of language and social practices, should be taught in schools. I wish that we’d been taught about the tricks and traps and fallacies language in school, and less about drainage basins and Mesopotamians. Lazily attending a few university lectures and listening to the oration of brilliant and tireless university academics soon made me realise that state school education had failed me even more completely than I’d assumed. It had taught me almost nothing of use. If I was going to make the most of what I was now involved in, then I’d have to start learning how to think and respond. Perhaps if this kind of insight was applied a little earlier there would be fewer school kids posting on the internet, trying to close arguments with ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ and using crude relativism as an excuse for argumentative failure. Perhaps not.

But that wish also reflects the other great lesson of philosophy: that most philosophical discussion is so divorced from general discourse as to be useful only to those people who study this stuff from day to day. Even the philosophers who regard themselves as approachable, those who laugh at Heidegger, Fichte or Lyotard for spewing out impenetrable rubbish, are generally lost in their own backwaters of study, failing to bring us anything more than a survey of the history of ideas, and perhaps some ill-formed considerations about the nature of vagueness. There’s a splendid observation in one of Will Self’s short stories, Dr Mukti, whereby he describes attendees at a convention as experiencing ‘the feeling of intellectual arousal that passes for understanding’. The activity of philosophy generally constitutes little more than this sense of arousal. Real understanding seems to me to constitute learning how to use something within a certain context, and there is often very little utility in philosophical activity. It is a mind game from which we benefit by feeling that we’ve proved ourselves, in just the same way that the runner feels he has proved himself after a particularly satisfying sprint. The journey itself was to nowhere, and it has achieved little more than the kind of self-improvement I was talking about earlier.

Considering this lead me to uncover quite anonther important distinction: between philosophy in public and private life. This idea was first highlighted for me by one of Richard Rorty’s books, in which the American philosopher distinguishes between things that are useful to us in a private sense, and those which are useful in the public arena. The subjects which are useful privately, he argues, help us find our identity and inwardly understand ourselves. I’ve found a lot of things to be like this. Reading certain philosophers, listening to certain pieces of music, watching certain films or reading certain comics have all clarified what I think about the world, and how I want to approach it. These things, Rorty believes, make certain people respond to them by saying ‘that’s what I would have said/done’ and thereby allow us to know ourselves a little better. Other people, whose private world has no use for such artefacts, will simply see them as nonsense or a waste of time. These subjects are generally fairly esoteric and aren’t much use in our dealings with the community, and can’t be used templates for improving the lot of everyone else in the world. This is where public objects come in. These are the pieces of art or writing, often philosophical writing, that allow us to do something useful in the world at large. They’re about the common good, rather than personal edification. You might take, for example, John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty as an example of once such text. It’s not much good as a tool for self-creation, or for understanding your own private impulses and obsessions, but as an example of how we might change society for the better it is of enormous value. Rorty takes the example of Heidegger’s writing versus Orwell’s writing. Heidegger elucidates unstating feelings for a select number of his readers, while mystifiying others. He is only of use privately and his work can’t be said to be any use to a community. Orwell on the other hand provides us with some very clear ideas about how we live as social animals and his work can be of benefit for discussion between people socially. We can all read 1984 and then discuss the way it illuminates the workings of society. Its examples become public objects that are of use to almost everyone. This is the zone in which philosophy suddenly becomes useful again, despite the efforts of numerous 20th Century philosophers to tear it down – the ideas that build, rather than destroy.

Those people familiar with the history of ideas will know that the 20th century saw a succession of attempts to destroy the very idea of ‘metaphysics’ or the building of a system that will ‘explain the world’. Few of these attempts have gone very far in replacing the perceived misonceptions they set out to destroy. Finding a third way is, perhaps, the new task of philosophy.

In the next part of this essay I’ll talk about the piece of writing that genuinely made me start to think about philosophy of being useful to lots of people, rather than a select few. It is a point at which my own use for philosophy started being about the world again, rather than just being another form of escapism.

11 Responses to “Pro and Contra”

  • Jack Masters Says:

    I agree that a lot of philosophy seems to be empty roads and castles built in a kind of nowhere, but I think it’s important to remember that a lot of philosophers are simply lost, and they’re trying to find their way BACK. I’ve been in that state myself, where you’ve accidently cut open your mind by playing with some ideas and now you need even more ideas to patch it back up again.

  • Rossignol Says:

    Yes, that’s very true. I think all of philosophy since the 60s has been attempts to find a way back from the land of meaninglessness. I’m going to describe one of the possible routes in the next bit of this, I think.

  • Colin Says:

    Does anyone else ever experience the phenomena of staring at, or saying a word over, until it totally loses its associated meaning in your head, and becomes complete random nonsense? Its quite scary.

  • Rossignol Says:

    I have that with ‘behaviour’. Its meaning just doesn’t seem to fasten correctly in my head and I think that was a result of saying it millions of times (on purpose) while my behavioural science friend was trying to write his dissertation.

  • Nick Mailer Says:

    The third way? What’s that? Some sort of Mystical Positivism? The greatness of Philosophy, at least in my experience of it, is its imbuing me a zen like epistemological calm; I realise how little we can know, and how simple are the things that we can, no matter how frauds like Derrida et al try to obfuscate it. All else is window dressing.

    Thanks, Wittgenstein. Thitgenstein.

  • Rossignol Says:

    Not ‘mystical’, nor positivism as such. When the current fugue of work passes I’ll write some more on the subject.


  • Owen Says:

    Interesting piece Jim. I’m not necessarily in agreement with the last paragraph though. I think instead of attempting to tear down metaphysics etc, many Philosophers found themselves in a state of dissolution and are attempting to make sense of what has happened. I personally find Derrida fairly useless, but Foucault’s work on the history of modes of thought is just a devastating realisation of the current state – not an attempt to tear it down. Much like Hume or Thomas Kuhn.

  • Rossignol Says:

    Actually I am coming to Foucault and the like. In the second part of this. I just have to find the time to finish it. Argh!

  • tester Says:

    Can i have a test please

  • tester Says:

    Hey dude can i have test please ? Actually I am coming to Foucault and the like. In the second part of this. I just have to find the time to finish it. Argh!

  • Rossignol Says:

    You may, although ‘tester’ doesn’t seem like a particular useful name.

    And what are you testing? For anyone reading this: simply use the same details every time you post a comment and, after the first time I approve you, each subsequent comment will be posted automatically. Approving the initial comment helps kill the spambots.