What is Stand Up Philosophy

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This blog charts my attempts, in whatever way I can, and whenever I can, and as honestly as possible, to stand up for thinking - real thinking, whether in philosophy or politics, or maths - Because thinking needs standing up for!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Morality and Matter

One of the things I love about philosophy is its endless ability to ask you to see the world from another perspective. Take my latest performance piece on George Berkeley. Now the piece itself is a lovely little essay from the minor history of thought. It has a certain place in the philosophical canon, and presents an interesting proof for the existence of God, while making a nice point about the nature of being, and the problem of abstract thought, but on the face of it, that is all.
   And yet there must be something so much more to this piece - for it really spoke to the audience in a way that other philosophers perhaps sometimes do not. The reaction to a minor philosopher is itself very interesting (and gratifying), but with with my very strict philosopher's hat on, rather surprising. However, seen from another perspective there is no mystery in it. I think people are reacting warmly to two central (and inter-related) claims in Berkeley's argument. Firstly there is his claim that to accept the radical truth of perception, and the world as we see it, is actually rather a difficult thing to do. We are forever drawn away from that bright perception, and led into other thoughts, or abstract speculations, and miss its power, or simply assume that we know what it is. More than that, one misses where the real world actually is - where it exists - in a me. But secondly, on very deep level,  if the being of the world is tied to my perceiving of it, then its order (as well as those thoughts not derived from perception, namely awareness of others), imply a deep order beyond simple actuality. To give and be given in the world, at the same moment, and in the same thought, opens up that giving, that perceiving, to morality (or we might say ethics). So that what I perceive, what I choose to look at, and the thoughts I derive from that choice, those experiments, are necessarily already ethical in what they encompass. The bright being of perceptions (which is their reality) might predate all our thoughts about them, and so we need to think inside them (that is inside evidence itself), and yet that 'inside' is enmeshed within a moral order, which puts the reality of the perceptions within a wider framework where truth and the way we share knowledge with each other, is itself already part of a wider picture.
   In short Berkeley puts his finger, in an incredibly perceptive way, on one of the central problems of modernity. Once one understands perceptions, not as simple reflections of God given essences (a world where hats and dogs simply are), but rather as part of evidence, that might open out on many worlds (dogs exist, but so too do electrons, quarks, and fundamental strings), then we are necessarily caught up in endless ethical problems of what we should look at and why. The seemingly 'neutral' act of the scientist, who is determined at one level to let the world be and does so free from any assumptions, might be neutral in itself, but on another level it is an act beset by moral questions and ethical implications.
   Berkeley understands even before the 'scientific  age' properly gets going, both the importance of letting perceptions be in our minds, but also the ethical implications about where such experiments might lead. What is more he understands this in way that encourages thought in itself, and wants us to answer him, and do so in a  constructive and generous manner of our own. He gives us much to think about and with, even if we do not agree with him. And it is this generosity, which spoke to Hume, Kant, Hegel and Wittgenstein so powerfully, that still has its great power to move us all. In short  Berkeley is wonderful because he opens us all to being, if but for a while, great philosophers, and to think for ourselves.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"If Berkeley says there is no matter, then it matters not what Berkeley says!"

   I am just starting to work out how to perform one of the sadly under-read greats of British empiricism - the Irish Bishop George Berkeley. My problem is exactly how to present him. I mean Berkeley is not widely read, and yet his fundamental point, that for humans 'Essence is Perception', so if a thing is in  our minds it is real (for us, at least), is one of the touchstones of philosophy, and is so for a number of reasons. Firstly it is one of those ideas you read and understand, and wonder if it is true. Secondly, there is something rather subtle going on here. For it is not just the world's essence that is defined in perception but also our own. It is then in perceiving a world apparently beyond our minds and yet within which we are, and in which we actually exist: so that we and the world are given in the same created-creative glance. This is then a theory of how one 'is' only through a relation to an elusive Other  (the good Bishop's actual argument being that this Other is actually God). Thirdly, in a world of virtual reality, where truth is defined on computer screen, it is an idea with a new cadence, and power: Our reality does once again lie in perception. - All of which makes rich performance material, and requires the philosopher to be subtle enough to say this, without going beyond Berkeley's text.
  However it is at this point the problems start. You see Berkeley is actually really very subtle. In the midst of his main argument there are all sorts of lovely arguments about the nature of language, of Causes and of God. The problem is that these are arguments that other philosophers would have written greatly about, but which the young Berkeley raises as interesting points, makes a pithy argument about and then moves on. The reader is then left wanting more. This is of course a powerful philosophical trick. It meant that for many years thinkers read and quoted Berkeley, as they made a philosophy and so a living out of what he never quite managed to say.... Any faithful performance of Berkeley must therefore frustrate an audience at the same moment it intrigues it.
   Moreover there is one last point that must be bought out, if never stated. Berkeley only writes one short philosophy book, and does so as a young man. What is more, the main purpose of this book lies not in pure philosophy, so much as theology. He wants to demonstrate that we need to assume God, to perceive the world at all (and so to be). This hurry to God, and the dismissal of the world as a consequence (it is only what God gives to me), can and has made Berkeley a figure of philosophical fun - and even a stooge. Here is a man whose argument appears to actually be straw, and can be attacked accordingly. To get this element of Berkeley out there, so the audience can hear it, and yet also hear the rather interesting and powerful things Berkeley is also saying about our relation with whatever is really outside us, must be the real trick of this performance. If the audience all think the same thing at the end of the piece, then I have failed in my job, and let George down!
   In short, why I have put Berkeley off all this time, is because I have always deeply respected him, and realised that to get him right is a challenge... but one that must be addressed at some time (if nothing else to do justice to British thought, I usually make Locke a figure of fun after all, and perform Hume too rarely). And that time had better be now. For Berkeley is the first great ethical thinker of our encounter with an Other, an encounter which he understands and renders moral in the same moment. He is therefore a philosopher whose time is now, and who has never had more to say to us all, and I can only hope I do not, as so many have, not do him justice!