July 29, 2010


Edited by Ray Monk and Frederic Raphael
568 pages, Phoenix

‘Ere... He doesn’t wanna Hegel! By Pat Black

It’s a horrid thing to be confronted by your own stupidity. This has happened to me more times than I care to remember.

About a year ago, someone sent me an online psychometric test involving abstract thinking and spatial reasoning, things I reckoned I wasn’t too bad at. Placing shapes and squiggles in order, spotting patterns. These patterns might have been perspective tricks of the mind, like the sort that turns into a dinosaur or a dolphin if you squint hard enough. Perhaps these mental crop circles spelled out messages like, ‘Spot the numpty’ or, ‘Pat Is A Clown’. If they did, I missed all of them.

In mitigation, I didn’t realise there was a strict time limit, and so I missed a chunk of questions. Perhaps “not reading the instructions” is a significant low-wattage indicator in itself. But even so, the conclusion to the test: that I am, intellectually, still hovering around the level of playing with Stickle Bricks - blunt ones - came as a bit of a shock. Have some of that, state education.

A similar feeling crept over me when I read The Great Philosophers, an examination of 12 of the hardest thinkers in the history of the world. These boys take no messing whatsoever. You put an argument forward, they grit their teeth, their faces go red, their heads shake like Eddie Vedder, they go “Gnnnnnnnnaaaaaghhh!” and then, finally, inspiration strikes them and they argue you into a pulp. You’re being taken to school with this one. Luckily, 12 leading academics are there to guide you through these canyons of the mind.

This is a solid introduction to a subject matter which, by its very nature, never provides any concrete answers to the questions it raises. To a natural waffler like me, this should be meat and drink. But it is very strong meat, and too much of the drink tends to send you into a state of... put you in a state of... uh, where were we again?

It's not a book to be read on public transport, for instance. A pretty girl getting on board can result in entire pages being lost, whereupon I need to go back to them and go over them again. There's probably an entire philosophical school of thought to cover this kind of fugue and the ways in which vital information and rational, reasoned thought gets completely lost by nature of us being simple animals. Possibly I even read them in this book, but I can't recall them.

The appropriate Lt Frank Drebin quote for this occasion is: "...And where the hell was I?"

This book is demanding and stretching. It requires concentration. You need to get your Vedder face on and do some hard thinking. And that fact alone makes it required reading. Some of our books should be "hard". You have to step up sometimes.

Your top Greek men, Socrates and Plato, represent in the opening chapters for the Greek Massive. Anthony Gottlieb reminds us that Socrates is ironically an unknowable quantity (much of what we know of this person comes from his star pupil, Plato, who used him as a character in his famous dialogues), and these are excellent introductions to the topic. Socrates instructs us how to argue, to get to the truth of something by uncovering what is untrue. It's glorious in that through Socratic inquiry you can put almost any argumentative opponent flat on their arse - the more obnoxious and picky they are, the easier it is. It's a terrific strategy. Whether you end up drinking poison as a result of this intellectual swagger, or end up captaining the Brazilian national football team, is all in the delivery, I suspect.

We move on to Bernard Williams’ discussion of Plato’s forms... yes, the representation of an unattainable physical perfection through the realms of thought, in which it can be obtained... my brain has a green light. It's moving. I'm interacting! I understand! Kind of.

Next, John Cottingham’s take on Decartes and dualism. The mind, the body. We're still on green, but the light's flickering. A few bumps in the road. Cogito ergo sum, innit? I've got that much. That much I know. I think, therefore I am, except where I amn't, it seems. Descartes himself was kind of confused. He redacted his own stuff? Was he shagging the Queen of Sweden? God, I should have gone to those lectures.

Next up you have Spinoza, who was thought of as a complete heretic though his idea was that God was everywhere and God is everything - which, if you're into the idea of an omnipotent deity, seems to pretty much nail it down. What was their problem? Not dogmatic enough? But I'm not sure about all that, now that I mention it. I am going by memory and it isn't good. I did not take notes! I did not study for this test! We're on red. Fluffcon Three.

Berkeley next, the great mathematician. You want to see his dictum? Here's his dictum: "To be is to be perceived". This boy liked the idea of immaterialism, which is to say, we can only truly know sensations and ideas of objects, but not the objects themselves. Which, I think, is to say that I know of this lovely cup of tea beside me through the taste of it, the warmth that spreads into my tummy as a result of drinking it, the feel of the porcelain handle in my fingers, the gulping sound I make when I swallow, but not the actual matter that makes up the tea itself. Christ. Is that right? Let's move on while I sound authoritative.

Now onto Hume, and I have to knock off a few points from Anthony Quinton's chapter through over-use of the Scots economist's actual text - often page after page of it. Having said that, Anthony Quinton understands more of philosophy than I ever will, and I still don't have a clue about this subject after reading a full fecking book about it, so do not read that statement as a negative reaction to the chapter. Hume, incidentally, was into empiricism and rationalism, and sought to debunk the idea of innate ideas in favour of whatever we experience. Is that existentialism, sort of? Probably something else entirely. I am not a reliable narrator. If Socrates is right, and that our intelligence can be best defined by understanding what we do not know, then by rights I should be a f*cking genius.

Marx I am at least sort of familiar with, so that provides a bit of a break for my tired cortex. Heidegger was into tearing up big terms such as "being" and "existence" and starting from the start. And he came up with Daesin. I'm too tired at this point to even rack up what "Daesin" is. It is not a type of soap powder, although it should be. I think Daesin is a being which is concerned with the state of being. You're a Daesin; I'm a Daesin. "Are you Daesin?" "Are you asking?" Uff. This one lost me, sorry.

Wittgenstein gave me an unexpected boost of green light: he reckons that our understanding of the universe is shaped by language and grammar. That language is everything. The universe as we understand it is only understood through words, grammar, how it all interlocks. Here was something to put my pan back on the boil; something I could relate to, a concept to grapple with instead of having them all flying over my head. And it... well, hello, ladies. Goodness me, fine weather we're having of late.

Fluffcon Five.

Propping up the proper thought sloppers is Popper, the penultimate philosophical prelate in this book, and his rejection of empiricism, an embrace of more abstract thinking. Sadly, this does not mean fluffy thinking, being far more cerebrally engaged than that. It's to do with open and free societies, really. One where my brain is finally given rest.

And lastly, Turing: computer says no. He was the computers guy. The British Establishment didn't treat him too well, despite all that Enigma/beating the Nazis jazz. But he was a genius. He kind of came up with computers. And he developed the famous artificial intelligence Turing Test: viz, if you're talking to a computer and you think it's a person, then the computer can think.

As a corollary to that famous conclusion, I should think that we've maybe gone a stage beyond that in this day and age. You can now ask a computer its opinion on the theories and dictums of philosophers and get a reasoned, intelligent response. Whereas if you ask me, you will get knob jokes. Including this one: "Whoops! Better not mention dictums around Turing! Guffaw!"

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology over the way Turing was treated after the Second World War owing to his sexual orientation. Fun things for philosophers to do when you've been caught getting sexy with people of the same gender included chemical castration in the 1950s. Just as well there weren't any anti-homosexuality laws in ancient Greece in the time of the great philosophers, eh? We might have an almost entirely different world - top, middle and bottom.

Anyway, this is a fine book. I was surprised at Nietsche's omission, but it turns out that he's not quite as influential as the 12 included here. I would have thought he was box office, but then, as I have quite ably demonstrated, I know very little of philosophy. In fact, I can't even do calculus or anything. I struggled to get out of first gear with some chapters – no fault of the authors, just my mental sloth. This experience left me a bit deflated, like the psychometric test up above.

But this book's great strength is that it makes me want to go back to it. It isn't enough for me to get flippant, to scratch my head and shrug off these theories, these inquiries into matters so deep and so dense that for just a moment - when the light is on green - the entire universe seems to shiver a little bit in considering them. There's an insight into something possibly infinite, possibly eternal. The nature of everything, of even a possible God, boiled down into five hundred pages. The sum of all knowledge. That's intoxicating. Thinking turned into pure physics; expansion, insight, blinding lights, quiet thunder... There is an entire universe of thought that I was ignorant of. That I am still a wee bit ignorant is my own fault; but rest assured, though I've been a bit bruised by this encounter, I am going back for more.

And ultimately, the conclusion I would draw about this entire enterprise, the branch of thinking that is philosophy, that grasping for the ultimate, irrefutable truth, is... eh... ah f*ck it, yes, let's do some drinking.

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