Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Action philosophers assemble!

Are there any real philosophical questions? A lovely, grimy and obscure question, just the kind of thing to get most Western style analytic philosophers quivering with excitement. It is also just the kind of question that has largely been ignored by Eastern religions and personal philosophies. Is this type of philosophical enquiry valid? Useful? Can we use pure logic and reason to wriggle out of tricky metaphysical problems. I don't think so, not that I believe it is a waste of time either!

Let us perform a thought experiment, maybe we gather together a collection of some of the past centuries most distinguished and logical minds in the same room. Let us start with Ludwig Wittgenstein, the master of language, his Philosophical Investigations often described as the most important book of 20th century philosophy. He would certainly have a few things to say on the topic.

Wittgenstein was an abrasive and passionate character, so we better round out our conversation with some more level headed investigators. Bertrand Russell the mentor of Wittgenstein applied cool logic and mathematical reasoning to a number of deep questions, as the leader of the revolt against idealism he should definitely be at our meeting.

Finally we need someone to weigh up all the evidence, compute a test statistic and determine if we have successfully answered our inquiry by disproving a null hypothesis. Karl Popper, the first philosopher of science is just the man for the job. We have gathered together our elite logical minds under one comfortable roof, provided ample seating and smoking facilities, prepared a nice log fire to set the scene and can now sit back and wait for the magic to happen.

What do we imagine to take place, what wizardry will our logical minds whip up on this vexing problem? Do we imagine they talk long into he night, the steady stream of pipe smoke slowly merging together into a giant cloud, their ideas gradually intermingle and accelerate until they arrive at a universal consciousness raising reality just as dawn breaks! Well done chaps, better write that down quickly and publish it for all the world to see.

Of course this exact situation did occur! On the 25th October 1946 the eminent three alongside a host of other philosophers were gathered together at Kings College in Cambridge. The exact details of the exchange are unclear yet it ended with Wittgenstein being ejected from the room in a rage. One particular version (that I like best anyway) is, Popper and Wittgenstein got into a heated argument, so heated in fact that Wittgenstein began wielding a hot poker directed at Popper demanding that Popper offer him up one example of a concrete moral rule. Popper countered beautifully with the line

'Do not threaten visiting speakers with hot pokers.'

At this point Russell had to step in to prevent the untimely branding of the chief philosopher of science.

(At this point I feel I need to quickly slip in this image! Don't get in a fight with Plato!)

This was the only time that these three great minds were in the same room together. What was the product? Anger, contention, sarcastic comments and not even the much valued logical ideals that we were questing for. Now I admire and respect each of these men in turn, their ideas were visionary, incisive and brilliant each in their own way. What did they get out of these ideas? Did they live any better or worse than anyone else?

It is primarily for these reasons that personal philosophies largely rejected their approach. Of course there were metaphysical arguments in Eastern religions but they were always viewed as interesting side points, funny little diversions from the way. I would never for a second suggest that you shouldn't read deeply and consider Western philosophy, just don't get too attached. You may one day be wielding a hot poker towards another human being!

Don't look for the meaning, look for the use. I have always liked this philosophy; to see what a particular idea gets you in the long run. How does it make you feel and view the world, is that personally and subjectively good, pleasant and enlightening? How does it make you treat others and the world around you, with peace and compassion? If not, let it go, simply find of way of thinking and viewing the world that makes you happy. Our philosophies are simply models for the world, riddled with inconsistencies and false assumptions, it is how we make our models work for us that is important. (The sharp Western philosopher will of course say that I have taken a metaphysical position here and that it is riddled with flaws. I say of course I have!)

Wittgenstein was an abrasive character and had a sad personal life. His brothers either died in war or committed suicide, he also thought about suicide, was once thrown out of a school for beating a sickly child to unconsciousness (he was the teacher....) and eventually had a nervous breakdown and needed total care. I hope that he remembered these words:

'Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those that live in the present.'

He should have, he wrote them in Tractatus, the work that got him his Ph.D. Yet thinking things and being them are two different things. This is the single biggest gap between personal philosophises and intellectual ones, and I think it makes a huge difference.

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