P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 29
7th April 2002
I. 'Crockford's Philosophy' by Michael Brett
II. 'What a Wonderful World' by Katharine Hunt
III. This Season's Silly Idea: a Philosophy T-Shirt
I. 'CROCKFORD'S PHILOSOPHY' BY MICHAEL BRETT
The London casino as metaphor for discovering
the Useful Truth and making decisions
'Shall I get drunk or cut a piece of cake?'
- Keith Douglas, war poet (1920-1944)
Historically, there have been two culturally dominant camps in the history of
Philosophy. The first sees stability, order and stasis at the centre of human
life and the Universe. Its central idea is that truth is accessible to reason,
but hidden beneath the surface of daily life, and known only to initiates. The
more modern developments, excluding Marxist Philosophy, see reality as vast,
complex, subject to change, and not fully understandable.
The first group could rest upon ideas about God, or gods, or a variant of
Platonic forms, or, perhaps, Mathematical or reductionist assumptions. The flux
and movement of daily life and existence are somehow irrelevant, or unreal in
the Hindu sense of Maya, a hollow world of pointless events which are, at best,
shallow, and at worst, sinful. In the English speaking popular culture of the
West, this idea survives in absent minded professors in films and stories, and
the use of the word 'academic' as a synonym for 'irrelevant.'
Stasis, immobility, is particularly important, as permanence is linked with
lack of motion in a kind of hierarchy of being, where motion is associated with
mortality, and by extension, shallowness and lack of understanding by worldly -
and lower class - people living in Time, who are not privy to the secrets of
'static' religious and philosophical systems. You could argue this from a
Marxist perspective, and link the secret apparatus of priesthoods, kings and
secret knowledge to a way of mystifying and deifying a ruling elite's grip over
a subject population. Plato's forms, and the political myths to be taught in
'The Republic' are obvious examples, as too are some aspects of the Christian
Philosophies of Government and Politics that dominated Europe for centuries. In
Thomist Philosophy God is fixed, motionless as a condition of his unending
existence. So it is necessary for a dynamic form - the Holy Spirit - to
initiate St Mary's pregnancy.
One of the most striking things about the Medieval world is the way that all
areas of intellectual endeavor fit together: God, the celestial maps and fixed
stars, the ideologies of kingship and religion, are all arranged in hierarchies
based on immobility at the top, and movement at the bottom. Where there is
movement, such as in the lives of Peasants, it is in great cycles of Church
holy days, the seasons, sowing and harvesting, birth and death. In pictures,
Kings and Popes sit still on thrones, and peasants till the fields. Universal
knowledge is possible, and when found is to be fixed and unchanging. There is
no such thing as new knowledge, only the recapitulation and rediscovery of the
truths of the Ancient World, there is no search, only research.
The second group of Philosophies that lie closer to our time are very
different. They make little or no claim to universal knowledge or
understanding. For example, in Wittgenstein's beautiful and enigmatic work, it
sometimes seems that he is saying that because human beings cannot understand
everything, knowledge in itself is useless as it is always incomplete. Written
in the context of the Age of the Dictators, it can be taken as a plea for
sanity and tolerance in human affairs, but as a basis for action it seems like
saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread.
In this sense, Wittgenstein is the intellectual descendant of Hume, whose
position of questioning connections between cause and effect was revolutionary
- and necessary - in the context of the Eighteenth Century, when scientific
thought was emerging into a world of unproven assumptions and traditions; where
farmers would not allow women in menses to enter a dairy, as their presence
would curdle the milk; and - according to Benjamin Franklin - everyone believed
that drinking strong ale made you strong, so that in the London of his time,
very little work was done after eleven in the morning.
However while it is still valid that we should question all possible
connections between items and events, in the wider world - if you applied it
universally - it would be the intellectual equivalent of tone deafness, where
people are unable to understand music because they cannot remember, or grasp,
the connection between a series of musical notes. It may be possible that the
cymbal I am hearing before the saxophone solo begins, is not part of my CD but
is being played by the man practising next door, but it is not probable enough
to affect my listening or enjoyment. In other words, I am taking a chance based
in an assessment of probability - assuming that I am hearing the CD for the
first time. We are now entering the world of the roulette wheel and the chance
encounter and outcome in human - and scientific - affairs.
I believe that gambling is so much part of human culture that we do not realise
it. For example, in 'Stone Age Economics' by Marshall Sahlins, the standard work
for Year One Archaeology Students, there is an examination of the !Kung bushmen
of the Kalahari ('!' represents a click vowel.) The bushmen in the study live
at the technological level of the New Stone Age, and the men carry spears at
all times. Initially, scientists expected them to have a lot of meat in their
diets; in fact it turned out that they lived mainly on roots, fruit and berries
and used the spears in gambling games, and only very occasionally went hunting
which was largely done to break the routine of diet and daily existence, rather
than to satisfy actual need.
Of necessity our knowledge is partial and incomplete. Our brains are finite and
cannot process vast amounts of sensory and intellectual input. We are limited
still further - when compared to other species - in the range of sounds and
colours that we can experience. For example, a kestrel can track a rodent by
seeing the glow of its residual body heat on blades of grass that it has walked
over, moments earlier. Our sense of smell, compared to that of a fox, is
non-existent. However, this does not mean that our knowledge though limited, is
Using the mixed analogies of an honest casino, like Crockford's in London,
where the cards are not rigged and the casino wheels are not subject to
interference, and a pilot flying a Boeing 747, we can see knowledge and
experience of the world operating at three levels:
Firstly there is the roulette table. This is game designed to fleece drunks of
their money. Nothing that happens in this game is a guide to future outcomes.
There is no pattern, save that of pure chance, to where the ball will land next
time. It could be 19 black or 12 red. It is like Macbeth's view of the world: 'a
tale told by an idiot...signifying nothing.'
Whatever facts or statistics you could write down, or remember about this game,
none of these would help you win.
The second, and best game for amateur gamblers is 21. The outcomes are limited,
and if you can remember the cards that were dealt previously, you can win small
amounts which can add up to a lot over an entire evening, so long as you keep
your nerve, and remember to walk away when you have won enough to make you
happy. Here, previous events can affect future outcomes, providing that you
remember what they are and, as a good follower of Pascal, work out your odds.
Then there is the pilot in his 747. The instruments in his cockpit represent
true height, speed and position. This is necessarily reductive. He does not
know the exact behaviour of all the quantum particles in either his aircraft or
the air molecules around him, yet he knows enough to be able to perform his task
of taking an aeroplane from Berlin Templehof to London Heathrow. This would
seem, superficially, to be our position in life: we know where we live, what
our salaries are, our general state of health, and something about the people
with whom we live. We can make reasonable assumptions, like insurance
assessors, over our chances making it to 65. Everything seems simple enough.
Yet, we know, that real life is made up of a mixture of all these levels of
predictability. The oldest woman in France, who died aged 109 last year, smoked
cigarettes. The 747 we described can do a perfect take-off and run into clear
air turbulence, this cannot be detected by radar or any modern instruments, and
has the same effect as flying into a brick wall.
Everything we do, from taking a bath to watching television has levels of risk,
which we routinely accept and balance against likely benefits or pleasures of
some kind. This is what knowledge is: the Second World War may have really
begun in 1940 and the Bronte Sisters may just have been a crowd of drunks who
won their manuscripts in a poker game, but on the balance of the evidence we
take a gamble on this not being the case. But it is a gamble, and we have no
real way of knowing for sure unless we knew the Bronte sisters personally, and
saw them writing, or were present in Europe in 1939.
As a huge leap, this is why in the folklore of flying nothing is hated or
feared more than 'an infernal machine' with defective instruments, or, in the
cultures and religions of most nations, the liar or traitor. The person who
deceives us by feeding us false information, or tells others about us, strikes
at the basis of our existence in a way that a known, even very dangerous enemy
does not. The full fury of a conquered or occupied people does not turn on
occupying troops nearly as much as informers from their own side.
Universal longing and demand for truth, and the hatred of lies, is not just a
luxury for us, or an idealistic position for young people to hold, these are
the conditions for our continued existence as a species, especially as we enter
a time when almost anyone with a few thousand dollars can gain access to nuclear
weapons, and religious and racial bigotry become part of conventional politics.
The job of Philosophy, Science and Logic is to enable us to distinguish the
useful truth from deliberate falsity, ignorance or distortion.
By useful truth I mean that which is full and accurate for the purposes of the
task in hand. A screwdriver is a piece of metal with a wooden handle with a
flattened blade. Its steel structure may have a particular atomic structure and
quantum arrangement, but for my purpose, now, of mending a door, it is a
screwdriver. The ace dealt to me on the green baize of Crockford's blackjack
table may be just an arrangement of molecules and atoms of cellulose and
printer's ink. This would not explain why I kiss it and jump in the air.
Philosophy should also be concerned with the useless truth. Supposing there
were a group of people with no redeeming features whatsoever, not even to
provide the rest of us with a sense of moral superiority, a negative example to
our children or a good laugh at parties. Let us call them the Unpleasant. Should
we risk social disorder by pointing out just how unpleasant the Unpleasant are,
with their awful lurex tank tops and Chas and Dave records? Should we open
special homes for the Unpleasant? This, again, is a gamble. We cannot look into
the future and know for sure what the consequences will be of herding the
Unpleasant together, they may grow more unpleasant. They may find each other so
unpleasant that they all embrace celibacy rather than each other, and die out
within a few decades, anything to avoid another glamorous granny or knobbly
knees contest. Would it be therefore useless or useful to warn society of the
dangers of mixed fretwork classes, or even marriage, with Unpleasant people? Or
would it be better not to raise the issue at all?
Whatever our choice may be, the problem is dynamic and changing all the time.
Some Unpleasant people could be attending charm school, in addition, some
people classed as Unpleasant could only be borderline cases. There are also so
many, that like Economics, we are forced to deal in generalities that may not
be accurate enough to predict future outcomes. Wherever we are, it is long way
from Plato and St Thomas Aquinas, and as I sit here, a meteorite may come
through the window striking me on the head, killing me instantly. I am taking
the chance that it will not happen.
(c) Michael Brett 2002
II. 'WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD' BY KATHARINE HUNT
"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best
of all possible worlds,
and the pessimist fears that this is so."
- James Branch Cabell
What a terrible state the world is in today! Violent crime on the increase,
teenagers dying from drug overdoses, family life breaking down. Look at the
state of education, health, public services. Every week one hears of more job
cuts. Our politicians are corrupt. The natural world is threatened by pollution
and exploitation. The streets of our towns and cities are dirty and choked with
litter; graffiti daubed across walls and buildings. Selfishness is now the name
of the game so far as success in this world is concerned. People watch on
television, and act out in reality, lives that are aggressive, immoral,
ignorant, greedy. You can't help but be depressed by it all.
But it's also a very beautiful world. Look at the attractive and varied natural
scenery all around us. We can enjoy the bright flowers in the springtime, hear
the singing of the birds, watch the trees spreading their leaves in summer,
then turning many-coloured in autumn. In Britain, most have easy access to
clean water, fresh air, comfortable shelter from the elements, nutritious food
and adequate clothing. We're really very lucky to have all these things. We can
take our basic survival absolutely for granted. And there are many caring,
thoughtful people who do so much to help others, through voluntary and charity
work, or sometimes just by being there. The support and love of family and
friends is one of the warmest, most valuable things we can experience in life.
Which is it? If we're being realistic, what is our world really like? Should we
listen to the optimist, or the pessimist?
They are both right. The world isn't just awful, but nor is it just wonderful.
It is wonderful and awful; both, at the same time - sometimes even in the space
of the same experience. It's the same world that has both the beautiful flowers
and trees in it, and the pollution and selfish ignorance - not to mention an
awful lot of other things that are just sort-of OK.
This isn't to say that everyone gets an equal share of pleasant, nasty and
indifferent experiences in their individual life. Clearly that's not true at
all. Some New Age philosophies I've read about seem to suggest that people are
'never tested beyond what they can bear'. For example, here is Hector Christie,
owner of the stately home Tapeley Park, from his book 'No Blade of Grass':
"However, if we open our eyes - we will realise that the
challenges we receive do not push us beyond the limit with
which we can cope, if sometimes only just, to help us to
But people do get pushed by circumstances, sometimes far beyond what they can
bear; at worst it leads to depression, addiction, mental breakdown or even
suicide. Conversely, some people seem to have relatively easy lives, keep
healthy, live long and die painlessly.
How is it possible for the same world to contain such wonderful and such
horrible things? They seem so closely bound together within it. I can't help
but notice that my account of the wonderful things in the world concentrated to
a considerable degree on the natural beauty of the world; while the awful things
I enumerated are exclusively man-made. An erupting volcano isn't bad; it's just
a fact of nature - although it's terrible when people are killed by lava flows
and volcanic ash. But it's the loss of people's friends and relations that's
awful, not the volcano. I don't wish there were no volcanoes in the world, but
I hope no one I care about is ever hurt or killed by one.
The real source of the wonderful and the awful in life is people.
Can nature ever be so captivating, or so loathsome, or indeed so unremarkable,
as people? A close friendship or loving relationship is more precious to us
than the bluest sky, the greenest mountain pasture, the softest summer breeze.
But human ignorance, selfishness, anger and greed are far more frightening than
avalanches, volcanoes or earthquakes. Nature strikes without prejudice; it is
amoral. But human malice can be aimed, quite deliberately, at you.
And if you are sensitive, you feel strongly the joy of the most wonderful
things life has to offer - but you feel equally sharply the pain of life's
unpleasant aspects. Your joy rises higher than the pleasure felt by someone of
lesser sensitivity, but your pain is correspondingly deeper. This hurts. Is
there any way to escape from this pain? Any method one can use, or a way of
life one might follow, to avoid being hurt so much?
Some Eastern religions - Buddhism, for example - are popularly regarded as
aiming at 'detachment'. At first this seems like it might be a way to lessen
the pain caused us by negative experiences. We could simply detach ourselves
from unpleasant feelings. But it's not as simple as that. Buddhism aims to
reduce our clinging to our ego, our attachment to our individual identity and
separateness - it makes no claim that it can protect us from experiencing
emotion. John Snelling, in his introduction to the religion, 'The Elements of
Buddhism', suggests rather that we need to be more open to feeling pain:
"The person that desires to have only pleasure and refuses
pain expends an enormous amount of energy resisting life -
If we really want to solve our problems - and the world's
problems, for they stem from the same roots - we must open
up and accept the reality of suffering with full awareness
- For suffering has its positive side. From it we derive
the experience of depth: of the fullness of our humanity.
This puts us fully in touch with other people and the rest
of the Universe."
There seems to be no escape from this pain. Perhaps the only way to avoid it
would be to detach yourself from people, who seemed to be the source of most of
the unpleasantness in life. But even if that was possible, I'm not sure it would
be a good bargain. Not feeling pain - but then, not really feeling anything
much. What sort of a life would that be?
'No Blade of Grass' Hector Christie (Christie Publishing 1997)
'The Elements of Buddhism' John Snelling (Element Books 1990)
(c) Katharine Hunt 2002
III. THIS SEASON'S SILLY IDEA: A PHILOSOPHY T-SHIRT
When Spring in the air, philosophers gaze longingly out of their study windows
and imagine what it would be to do the kinds of things that normal people do -
like lazing in the sun, or going out on a picnic, or enjoying a romantic
With perfect timing, Katharine Hunt has come up with the great idea of a
T-shirt for philosophy lovers everywhere. Katharine's design shows mischievous
cupid with an arrow in his lap, adopting the pose of Rodin's 'Thinker'.
For modesty's sake, I have added a volume of Plato, and a bow for good measure
(or what use is an arrow if you don't have a bow?) The result is delicious, or
absurd, depending on your taste.
The idea is to make the T-shirt available to members of the International
Society for Philosophers.
You can view the image at the PhiloSophos 'Philosophy Lovers Gallery' at:
Before we go ahead and spend a great deal of money printing these up, I would
like some reactions to the design. Better still, if you know how to handle
drawing pen and paper - or Adobe PhotoShop - maybe you can come up with
something better. Let your imagination run free.
Images should be e-mailed as GIF or JPEG files. If you prefer to do your
painting or drawing the old fashioned way, you can take your art work to a
print shop and get it scanned and put on disk.
- By the way, we're still looking for more submissions for the Philosophy
Lovers Gallery. Go on, what have you got to lose?
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