4667926797_4f6758b221_zThese are not Poppies

When Saint Augustine set out to explain the phenomenon of time he found it surprisingly difficult. Everyone understands what “time” is don’t they?  Yet he was soon forced to remark:  “If you do not ask me what time is, I know it; if you ask me, I do not know.” Most of the big philosophical chestnuts are the same. In fact it is a useful rule to make in life – if you think you know something, understand it through and through, then it would pay to think again because you are most certainly mistaken.

Take the issue of “Truth” for example. Everyone knows what “truth” is until they are asked to explain it. Or “Meaning”. Think about “Meaning” for a moment or two and if you are not immediately in a muddle – you should be. Or Music. What on earth is music? Why do we do it? Why does it send us into raptures? Does music mean anything? If so – how does it mean it? And quantum physics? The discursive worlds created by physicists are so bizarre it is hard even to  think the ideas they are struggling to express. To grapple with these notions you are obliged to “suspend disbelief” and cooperate almost as if you after entering a fictional world – which, of course – you are. So how does the fictional world of discourse relate to what we so glibly call “reality”. “Reality”  is another concept that is enough to make your head spin. We exist in a world that, for the most part, we tend to agree upon, but at another level, a discursive level, we create (or “understand” might be another way of putting it) that world according to our own human frames of reference. Probably a creature from another planet would describe the experience of its “reality”  in an entirely different way. Another way of understanding it might be to explain our frames of reference as “ways of seeing”. A creature from another planet would probably have a different “way of seeing” or understanding the surroundings in which it found itself.

Douglas Adams presented an interesting and entertaining fictional rendition of this confusion in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He explores the disjunction between frames of reference.  When the earthling Arthur Dent muses to himself : “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle” he was overheard by interstellar Vl’hurg speakers. Unfortunately they understand that phrase to be the most dreadful insult imaginable. Hence they found themselves obliged to declare war on the G’Gugvuntts. The war went on for a few thousand years and decimated their entire galaxy. When the confusion was finally sorted and all parties understood the origin of the misunderstanding they decided to join forces and seek retribution by invading a planet in the Milky Way: the planet Earth. However, due to a major miscalculation of scale their entire invading force was swallowed by a small Scotty dog. There is a lesson in that for all of us. Likewise “If a lion could speak” said Wittgenstein “we would not understand him.” His way of seeing would be very different from our human way of seeing. He would notice different things, smell, hear and taste different things.

The more pressing question though is: how do we understand ourselves? Deciding between truth or falsity is a discursive technique that allows us to talk about the world of experience. Truth only exists in discourse. It is not out there rattling around in the world independent of the human mind. Truth is a judgement call. To confer over anything at all, even to commune with oneself we somehow use what philosophers call “symbolic Form”. That means we understand and use signs and symbols, words and meanings to represent to ourselves the world and states of affairs in that world.

Not only do we need a means of symbolising “things” that exist in the world, but also we need to be able to represent those symbols to ourselves and to one another. We need to be able to manipulate iterable symbols and, also, we need a whole lexicon with which to consider our actions within that world of objects. Our relationships, our passions and our scruples all require symbols in order that we may contemplate them. Indeed, with out this ability  – the ability to abstract and use symbols to represent concepts and ideas (as well as actions and things) – we could not have our complex understanding of time. Without symbolic form in ideas and language we would be condemned to life in the present – or in the “here and now” so to speak. We would not be able to understand “yesterday” and “tomorrow”. We would not be able to hold an abstract image in our minds and entertain notions about situations other than the immediate, present circumstances of our experience. Like time, truth is a skill and a concept that can only arise because of the facility we have with symbolic form – with ways of seeing and representing those ways of seeing to ourselves and between one an other.

There are three main philosophical accounts of truth and they are very difficult to talk about in isolation because they are imbricated.  The theories themselves are “ways of seeing” used to consider the world, symbolic forms and concepts from slightly different aspects. One which concentrates on accuracy: the correspondence theory of truth. The second which concentrates on communicability and iterability: the coherence theory of truth and the third which deals with functionality and practicality: the Pragmatic theory of truth. First: the correspondence theory of truth states that the truth or falsity of a statement concerns how that statement relates to the world; and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world. “The moon is made of green cheese” is a statement that does not correspond accurately to the way the world is. This idea comes to us from at least as far back as Plato who suggested that a good starting point might be to suggest that:  “that speech which says things as they are is true, and that which says them as they are not is false. (Cratylus 385B)  So to use the symbolic form of speech to represent the world in a way that seems to be accurate is, on this account, to speak the truth.

However Socrates was aware that the great problem for the correspondence theory is how words and statements can possibly adequately correspond to (be like) things in the world. How do we manage to use thoughts and symbols to discuss the world? How does symbolic form work? According to Aristotle, somehow, our thoughts are likenesses of the things or facts in the world; but, he asked himself, how do those thoughts get to be translated into words and symbols? Indeed, are thoughts themselves “symbols”?

Hence the Ancients had identified the three aspects to the problem that we still grapple with today: the thoughts and images in our heads, the words that somehow represent those thoughts, and, finally, the actual things in the world, states of affairs and actions that the thoughts and words refer to. However it happens – it seems to work. We can relate those immaterial thoughts to words and thence to the material things that, by convention, they are used to represent.      

Philosophy of the “Self”



The study of Philosophy is a magnet for puzzled people. It sometimes seems that philosophers remain puzzled against all good common sense; indeed since the birth of the philosophical discourse itself some have made it their business to promote mystification. Others are simply and endlessly curious. I must admit that until I stumbled into Philosophy I was not particularly aware of just how puzzling the life of the human animal really is. Existence, I thought, was probably quite easy to understand and if I did not understand everything it was simply because I didn’t yet know enough. Au contraire

Nevertheless in the confidence of youth I hoped that I knew about as much as the next person. At that time people were expected to grow in wisdom in a natural way and to find life mysterious was almost a shameful thing. Most of our life skills were inherited, received from our parents and their religions.

When I talk about finding one’s “self” or “persona” in part through finding  one’s home in the world – I mean the part of ourselves that, through out the history of philosophy, has been called the “soul”. It has been discussed using other terms as well: e.g. “psyche”, “spirit”, “mind”, “identity”, “subjectivity”, “self”, “personality” and “personhood”. If you are a materialist scientist you might call the spiritual identity or essence that we all feel we have – a feature of the brain.

These terms: self, identity, mind, soul and so on, are not strictly interchangeable since they all carry with them a different understanding of what that “soul” or that “inner self” is; each considering the enigma from a different frame of reference; where it has come from and how it is created. Often the “soul” has been used to describe a supernatural or God-given feature: it refers to that intangible essence that transcends one’s mortal body and acts as our spiritual link to a putative creator.

In contrast, “self” or “personality” is used to describe a similar sort of essence – only this one is natural and culturally derived and not God-given. However, this “self” too is insubstantial and not easily locatable anywhere within the body. It is the culmination of historical circumstances that result in a particular individual.

When I say that I am trying to create my “soul” I mean that while I have been dealt a particular “self” by my social circumstances I am still trying to tinker with it and adapt it. I try to recreate it in the Godlike way of an artist.

In book 2 of his Republic Plato discusses a hierarchy of needs. “The first and greatest of these is food, which is the condition of life and existence…. The second is a dwelling, and the third clothing.” When we have satisfied all these basic needs we can turn our thoughts to play and the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake.

Hence it seems that before anything like this project of conscious self-creation can occur we need to feel safely home. Finding and maintaining a secure territory in the world is a first priority. Only then can we devote the time to understanding ourselves and take up the task of helping create, as much as find, an identity.

Twenty years ago women were expected to know how to run a home and raise children with little tuition. Nowadays there is more advice available (some would say too much) to help us to live our lives in the best possible way. How is one to be happy? How is one to be good? These were questions that, outside the context of religious instruction and obeying the rules of family and society, were never asked when I was growing up. Somehow, we were expected to be “naturally” good; to know these things intuitively and to wonder about them was to be downright seditious.

Like most people, I had no very clear idea what philosophical thought involved and I became caught up in its study by accident. If I had to name the best thing I have taken from the study of philosophy I would say it is the freedom to be bewildered. It is not freedom to indulge in woolly thought; indeed the rules of thinking are quite strict; rather, it is the liberty to marvel at just how complex and difficult just about everything is. Philosophy trains you to analyze the beliefs you hold and to be able to defend them. Inflexible people and those who “know too much” get into all sorts of trouble in Philosophy. They start to want to replace philosophy with theology or science and in so doing lose sight of the different roles of the three discourses.

When Socrates set out to discover the wisest person in Athens he questioned all the likely candidates. Reluctantly he concluded that he himself was the wisest person in Athens since he alone was aware that he knew very little.
“I went about searching after a man who was wiser than myself; at first among the politicians; then among the philosophers; and found that I had an advantage over them, because I had no conceit of knowledge.”

In the eight years I devoted to formal training in Philosophy I was taught how to be extremely, as opposed to just mildly, puzzled. Philosophers never tire of sitting around trying to decide just what it is they are doing. This, I imagine, is what it means to say philosophy is “navel-gazing”. And who ever would have thought that navel-gazing could be so salutary?

This self-absorption and self-consciousness is one of the most important philosophical techniques because Philosophy is a meta-discourse. That means it is a discipline that analyses all the discourses. Where Science, Arts, Theology etc are all first order discourses in that they purport to describe the things in the world (and those outside of it) directly, Philosophy sets out to consider the discourses themselves. It asks what we are doing when we do science? How do we do it? What do we mean when we say there is a God? What do we mean by “truth?” How do we judge something beautiful? What is happiness? And so on.

The first formal philosophy I heard were the lectures that preceded those I attended in English Literature. I sat on the stairs into the lecture hall waiting for my lecture and listened to the philosophy class talking things over.  The philosophy discussion involved a lecturer and about 250 students; a student would raise a hand and put a short case for what it would mean, for example, if we were to accept Sartre’s concept of Anguish. It would mean perhaps that “all wisdom comes through suffering?”. An attentive hush  in response to the suggested reading of Sartre.

The entire body of students and the lecturer thought these assertions through in a silence lasting much longer than would ever be tolerated in a discussion of English literature. In English classes a silence is taken to mean that no one knows the answer. Not to know is deemed a shameful thing  and it prompts much time-wasting bluffing. Having overheard the calm stillness of a philosophy class where thinking for oneself is encouraged, I found myself arriving for my English lecture earlier and earlier, until it was the philosophy class I was at pains not to miss. I loved their thoughtful silences, their knitted brows. I admired their caution, never leaping to conclusions they circled a suggestion and viewed it from all sides in order not to miss any potential significance.

Years later I heard the renowned American philosopher Stanely Cavell deplore an “unseemly haste” to begin talking and writing before really having anything to say.  By that time however I had begun to understand that the down side of this careful thoughtfulness is that the discussion can become overly mannered and controlled. At one summer school I attended in America I went to a philosophy seminar in the mornings and a literature seminar in the afternoon. The difference between the two was astonishing. The philosophy discussion was tightly controlled with the discursive “ball” passed carefully and politely from one person to another: no interruptions and hardly any heat (unless a female happened to contradict a male. Even in Philosophy that is asking for trouble.) In contrast the literature sessions in the afternoon were passionate affairs. Often, someone would be moved to storm out when his/her politics were slighted, and so on. Thinking back on it now I feel that a little more passion would have been welcome in philosophical discussions and better manners would be welcome in literary sessions.

Not all philosophers are so repressed, I have heard another ask “how do I know what I think until I hear myself speak?” but this stance is a rarity and often is frowned upon. Philosophy uses the same words as those in ordinary use but it tries to use them carefully, economically and precisely. Another down side of this self-consciousness is that often philosophy gets into a terrible imbroglio over “meaning”  and how words manage to convey meaning.

Coming from English studies I had to learn to take “meaning” much more seriously. “Meaning” is contextual and not just what some bright spark deems it to be – or was it? Literary writers and English scholars are like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty-Dumpty whose announced to Alice that if you pay a word more, you can make it mean anything you want it to mean. To prove his point Humpty made the word  “glory” mean a “good knock down argument”. In literature, creative dominion over words is admired but no such thing is desirable in philosophical discourse. In Philosophy, the denotation of words is fore-grounded while their sound, beauty and connotation are not of primary importance.

I have always loved to watch someone totally absorbed doing something that seems completely pointless, frivolous and harmless: like juggling. I especially like it if the proponent is highly skilled at his or her particular absurd activity. Such a degree of expertise indicates a baffling level of sincerity and dedication. It takes commitment to be able to do something very silly very, very well. Those whom I perceived in the grip of grand enthusiasms were the objects of my mystified envy. Nowadays I no longer have to envy these people. Philosophers are just such people. For the most part they are harmless and in the best of circumstances they can be very interesting. They need to be completely dedicated because there are few material advantages to be gained from their chosen field. Aristotle claimed that philosophy was the king of the discourses because it alone is  “disinterested”. He explains that all the other discourses aim to “do” something. Philosophy, he says, is singular in that it really “does nothing.” It is knowledge pursued for its own sake and for no other reason.

I continued bemoaning the lack of a spellbinding passion long after I had actually found philosophy. Habit dies hard. One day I was recounting how much I longed for the madness of a total obsession to befall me when I heard myself I follow up that statement with a short philosophical analysis of what that would mean. I began to realize that my own form of juggling,  a pointless passion or skill, had arrived. I had found philosophy.

Most Philosophers begin at least as very puzzled people. A philosopher who is not puzzled is not a very good one. They are filled with longing for something that they call “understanding” or “reason”. But I think it is just “longing” full stop. Rather constructively they direct, or project that longing onto reason and understanding. I was happy to discover that I was comfortable within their ranks and it was wonderful to have something at which to direct my longing.  Philosophy was another coming “home”.

I am not alone in thinking that just enough philosophical thought is a good thing, but too much can muddle one’s thinking almost beyond repair. Even ordinary words and activities become fraught with confusing nuances and scruples. The philosopher Wittgenstein, a man who devoted most of his life to the pursuit of philosophy, would take his best and brightest students aside and urge them to abandon the discipline and study something useful, like engineering.

Though I was unable to stick to my resolve not to read any more philosophy, at the stage of finishing writing a thesis I felt that I had escaped academia with my thinking apparatus still almost in reasonable operating order. The philosophical malaise manifests itself in a peculiar sense of uncertainty – concerning just about everything. A philosopher they say of themselves admiringly, could never write a letter to the paper. I have the malaise to the extent that sometimes a simple thought will trip me up and oblige me to sit down and mull it over in a fit of confusion- one might say I suddenly stop and do a bit of juggling.

Like all philosophers I can become completely bemused over a simple issue that a non-philosopher would consider just part of everyday life. There is a lovely story about Socrates who, on coming across a roadside stall selling all sorts of wares, fell into a lengthy reverie and stood stock still until he had considered all the items for sale. When he had finished he remarked with great wonder and relief: “What a lot of things I do not need!”

Similarly, the mocking question “How many angels will fit on a pinhead” is one a philosopher will explain is wrong-headed because it involves a confusion of discourses. The angel belongs to the discourse that suspends disbelief and talks about the supernatural; angels are immaterial. The pinhead and the act of counting things comes from the material world of things that have substance and size and can be counted. Most people just know that it is an absurd question but a philosopher will sit down and work out why it is absurd. Aren’t we funny?

Poetics of Space


The Poetics of Space : Gaston Bachelard
“There is ground for taking the house as a tool for analysis of the human soul. With the help of this tool, can we not find within ourselves while dreaming in our own modest homes, the consolations of the cave? … Our soul is an abode. And by remembering “houses” and “rooms”, we learn to abide within ourselves.”

The indigenous people of Australia hold that it is inappropriate to think of ourselves as “owning” our surroundings. We do not own the land except in a very temporary sense; rather, the land owns us. This is certainly the case with this maison vraiment Charantaise.

The house in its large garden owns us and we try to lavish upon it all the care and attention it seems to deserve. It repays us with rising damp, burst plumbing in winter and leaking roof tiles. Davis and I have been part of its life for almost twenty years now and we count ourselves lucky.

Many years ago, probably when I was puzzling over the problem with reference to my own life, I became curious about personal identity. How do we get to be the persons we are and how many people understand this as an interesting issue. I asked people to list in order of importance the characteristics that best defined who they were. It will come as no surprise that nearly all the women I quizzed saw themselves first as mothers, second as wives and only after that as involved in the world of work. In contrast, men listed their work as their most important defining characteristic. No one that I can recall referred to their homes as evidence of who they were.

Yet it makes good sense to say that “who you are” or your “identity” is very much tied up with where you are and how you make your home. Nowadays life seems is so multifaceted and complex that we need to make different homes to suit its various phases. The days when successive generations of a family were content to discover their own life stories in the one house are gone. In Western culture at least, one is not really born into a life story any more – or very few of us are. Rarely, sons follow their fathers into an occupation as they used to do when the blacksmith’s son joined his father at the forge and the farmer’s children inherited their father’s occupation along with the family farm. We may come back to the family home in later life, but before we reconcile ourselves with our past we usually want to enjoy the creative process of selecting and making a new story and scene of our own.

A Metaphor to Live By


No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmed web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
       To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be;
Therefore she weaveth steadily,
Therefore no other care hath she,
       The Lady of Shalott.
She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
       She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
       The Lady of Shalott.