On civilisation

16 06 2014




After years of living in a charming thatched cottage made of lumpy damp cob, I appreciate the joys of the smooth walls and year-round dry warmth of my current flat. I’ve rented the flat for nearly five years now and at the end of the summer when the heating clicks back on I feel the glow of knowing that I won’t have to sit through a winter at the laptop suffering with stiff, cold fingers, icy feet and a chest infection.

Wherever I have lived I’ve appreciated the convenient delights of hot water for washing up, daily showers and the simple pleasure of being able to boil a kettle for a pot of tea. When it falls dark in the evenings being able to turn on a lamp is reassuring. These small daily conveniences confirm that all is well with the world.

For many people in the western world heat, water and light are considered essential for a civilised existence. Take away just one of those elements and many people would feel deprived. Perhaps I have become soft, but there is no way I could live in cold, damp ancient places again. The rat thudding up the bedroom stairs and out through the charming little cottage window under the eaves ended romantic dwelling for me. Given the choice I suppose I could cope with candle-light as long as I had warmth, but it would be irritating and tiring reading and writing by dim light. It makes me wonder how the writers and thinkers of the past managed to get so much work done.

The desire to read a book in a warm well-lit room might seem innocent enough, but the romantic 18th century thinker Rousseau felt that a comfortable, intellectual existence prevented people from living rich lives.  In the words of Bertrand Russell, romantics ‘did not aim at peace and quiet, but at vigorous and passionate individual life.’ Rousseau believed that civilisation enslaved people. Real life was lived with intense feeling, preferably outdoors as much as possible. Think Wordsworth swooning against a tree and you get the picture.

The romantics rebelled against convention. Individual freedom was worth fighting for and worth all the hassle of going against the status quo. Perhaps this leads to solipsism. Bertrand Russell certainly thinks so and condemns romantic values as destructive. ‘Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism, especially of the Byronic variety, is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.’

Rousseau fitted the stereotype. True to the romantic spirit he sold his watch (being Swiss that was obviously the first thing he thought of) and spent time wandering through France homeless, pick-pocketing and befriending wealthy women when he became short of cash. He had a long-term affair with a chambermaid with whom he fathered five illegitimate children, and all of them ended up in orphanages. He became a social celebrity and was granted favours by Kings. His writing was banned. He inspired a revolution and he fell out with the most benign of philosophers David Hume.

I like to imagine the scatty Swiss and the sober Scot settling down with a good malt whisky or two to discuss the idea of taste and what constitutes human identity, but this philosophical friendship ended badly when Rousseau accused Hume of going along with a plot to kill him. A broken-hearted Hume mourning the loss of his crazy companion remained generous to the end. ‘He has only felt during the whole course of his life,’ Hume said of Rousseau. ‘He is like a man who was stripped not only of his clothes, but of his skin, and turned out in this situation to combat with the rude and boisterous elements.’  Rousseau returned to France where it is believed he ended his own life.

It’s easy to see why 18th century society with its emphasis on land and property rights seemed so depressing to someone who had no home of his own, but had Rousseau lived in the 21st century he might have recognised the benefits that modern civilisation has brought: not only electric light, but high speed trains and air travel. Civilisation has enabled us to build hospitals, waste systems and recycling plants. It has created reservoirs and universities, nature reserves and clean beaches.  It has given us digital photography and film and free music.  It has brought us vaccinations, the world wide web, safety lamps, flushing toilets, postage stamps, pencils, and rubber bands, all of which the Sun newspaper reminded everyone (or at least the 22 million who received the free copy this week) were invented by the English, brand leaders of civilisation itself.

Civilisation is no longer the chain that shackles us, but rather the bridge that takes us to where we want to go. Seen in this light civilisation frees us.

On the verge of knowledge?

13 12 2013


This week I’ve been talking to teenagers about philosophy. Yesterday a boy asked:  what do I get out of it?  Little did he know, but his question was not something I could easily answer. What was he hoping to get out of it? Did he want philosophy to point him in the direction of living a more fulfilling and engaged life, or did he want to know what a qualification in philosophy was worth?

It turned out that he wanted to know whether philosophy was taken seriously as a discipline. Was it equal to studying history or maths or science?  Was it recognised as a proper subject? This is a question that crops up fairly often in philosophy, especially among older students. They want to know that a subject is legitimate before they raise their energy to meet it. They want to know that it will be worth the investment because they are already very busy people. Only this afternoon during a creative thinking session, a sixth former asked with genuine puzzlement and exasperation: “I wonder whether you could tell me why I feel so tired all the time?”

After a quick lifestyle check in which he said he got enough sleep, regularly exercised and drank enough water, he admitted that he is the kind of person who gives life one hundred percent. Whatever he does, he has to give it his all, and that after a while gets exhausting. When I suggested taking half an hour a day to do absolutely nothing except let his mind take a rest from incoming information, he looked doubtful and then thoughtful. He said he might give it a try. I joked that the ultimate challenge now is to do absolutely nothing except give the mind some clear thinking space. In this age of non-stop doing, simple thinking has become the last thing many young people do when they feel overwhelmed and stressed. 

The group wanted to know: if humans are so clever and so successful why haven’t we got to the stage yet when we take time out to think creatively every day? Why have we invented a world of information and forgotten that we need time to get our heads around some of the new stuff that keeps coming at us daily. Why, they wondered, have we created a world in which young people in particular feel under pressure?

‘It’s because we’re greedy and competitive,’ one boy suggested. ‘Is it because we don’t know when to stop?’ another queried. ‘It’s because we have to feel that we’re making progress, and this is the way we’re used to making progress, by new inventions.’ These already overwhelmed boys of sixteen wanted to know whether there might be a limit to our human capacity for novelty and invention. When might it all stop?

The human capacity for invention intrigued the philosopher David Hume (1711-76). He believes that the imagination has a primary role in the way in which we access knowledge. One of Hume’s themes centres on the limits of knowledge. He shares with John Locke (1632-1704) the theory that the mind starts out as tabula rasa, or blank slate, and gains ideas through experience or impressions. For Hume, every idea we have is copied from impressions stored in the mind. We might want to design a fantastic building made from glass or ice, something never before seen, and we do this by combining impressions of materials and techniques previously experienced. Hume’s own example is a golden mountain. We might never have seen one, but we could invent one based on what we already know.

Hume’s theories intrigue because it is still not clear how we can know anything. It is one thing to say that we can create new knowledge from existing impressions based on experience, but does that mean that we can’t ask questions about what we don’t know? Do we have to remain within the boundaries of empirical knowledge? My adult seminar group this week wondered about the limits of knowledge and our chosen question delved into the problem of infinity: is infinity indefinable?

Gordon said that questions about what lies beyond what we know are impossible. We simply can’t make the leap. Our minds need to feel secure. Hume would have agreed. He liked his impressions and ideas neat and tidy and would have had no time for speculative nonsense. Bertrand Russell took a similar line, once claiming that the universe is a ‘brute fact.’ It exists. End of question. Get over it.

There were a few contemplatives among the group for whom this was not enough. If facts and evidence and data are the primary form of knowledge, why do we continue to ask metaphysical questions? If we’ve come to a dead end in terms of our method of gaining knowledge, and Russell thought Hume had pretty much said it all, then why do we feel that there is more to be discovered? Why do we dream and speculate and feel a sense of there being something other than the hard facts? And what do children know?

Steve shared a comment made by his three-year-old grandson. One day when they were out walking his grandson took in the scene around him and then turned to Steve and said: ‘When does it all end?’ What he meant was not that particular day out with his grand-dad, but life itself, in all its swirling glory.

To a three-year-old life is infinitely mysterious. I can remember a similar metaphysical moment with a three-year-old nephew one snowy Christmas on a walk through a village sparkling in the sun after a pub lunch by a log fire. As we crunched up the hill, my nephew looked into an immaculate sky and asked: ‘Belinda, is God real?’ I tried not to patronise him or fob him off with …well some people say…I told him about the philosophical arguments for the existence of God and said that he would one day have to make up his own mind about whether they were true or not. I like to think that I gave him something more to think about.

The age of three is a good starting point for philosophy, perhaps three is the ideal age for wonder. In thinking of how the world appears to a three-year-old, we remember that it is not all obvious and precisely thought-through. There are many things that need to be puzzled over and discussed and understood, many things that seem mystifying. Many impressions that have not yet become ideas.

When a close friend’s three-year-old came to Devon for the first time he was puzzled by the grass verges which were particularly intriguing to a boy who had in his short life known only London streets. He was curious and wanted to know. ‘Belinda, are the pavements under the grass?’  I told him about verges – a strange word now I think of it –  and he recombined his impressions. Hume would have said that he updated his imagination. Later on my friend’s son was able to add another new idea. After a particularly exciting time at the beach, he asked: ‘When are we going to that big canal again?’

Three year olds don’t need reminding to ask questions about life; they do so naturally and spontaneously. In recalling these moments of fresh openness to life’s experience, I think of the older boys today, so initially weary and jaded as they talked about the possibility that we might one day know it all, perhaps we would reach a Humean dead-end, until one of them said that there would always be as many creative ideas as there were people. ‘I guess that’s true,’ another said and their faces shone with wonder for a moment.

It isn’t going to end. There are always more questions, just as long as we remember to keep asking them.

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