Thursday, 23 April 2009

Simple trumps subtle part deux

From Conversations with Isaiah Berlin:
Of course, I think that professional philosophers are needed because if they are any good they do clarify ideas; they analyse words and concepts and the ordinary terms in which you and I think, and this makes a great deal of difference to the progress of thought. Perhaps freedom from thought would make us happier, but it is not attainable. Still, it is the basic difference between human beings and animals. Let me tell you a story which is merely an anecdote. The late Harold Macmillan told me that when he was a student at Oxford, before the First World War, he went to the lectures of a philosopher called J.A. Smith, a Hegelian metaphysician. In his first lecture to his audience of students, this professor spoke as follows: "All of you, gentlemen, will have different careers - some of you will be lawyers, some of you will be soldiers, some will be doctors or engineers, some will be government servants, some will be landowners or politicians. Let me tell you at once that nothing I say during these lectures will be of the slightest use to you in any of the fields in which you will attempt to exercise your skills. But one thing I can promise you: if you continue with this course of lectures to the end, you will always be able to know when men are talking rot." There is some validity in that remark. One of the effects of philosophy, if it is properly taught, is ability to see through political rhetoric, bad arguments, deception, fumisme, verbal fog, emotional blackmail and every kindof chicanery and disguise. It can sharpen the critical faculty a very great deal.
Now to follow, here's a story told to me by a colleague. The scene is an Edinburgh pub. Colleague and a friend of his are sitting at a table with the friend's father, a retired miner from Fife. They get talking to a couple of men at the next table who, it turns out, are Americans on vacation, and the conversation goes something like this:

Ex-miner: So what d'ye dae then?
Yank: We're philosophers.
Ex-miner: Oh, aye. Aye. [Pause] So...what is it ye dae?
Yank: We're philosophers. We study philosophy.
Ex-miner: Oh, right, right. [Pause] But what d'ye dae?
Yank: Well, we think about things, about some of the big questions in life.
Ex-miner: Oh aye. What like?
Yank: Well, like the difference between right and wrong.
Ex-miner: [after considering this] How old are you, son?
Yank: Thirty-two.
Ex-miner: So, tell're thirty-two...and ye dinnae ken the difference between right and wrong?

I thank you.


Restored after much shameful delay, a link to WSER Silver Eel Radio, created and presented for your delight by the similarly Leiber-loyal mrdeadbob.


Saw the film version of Christ Stopped at Eboli, directed by Francesco Rosi. Sadly, however noble the film-makers' aims, and however accurately the film itself reflects the book, it'll mean nothing to you if you haven't actually read the book first, as so much of the drama is internal. The memoir is basically about stasis: unsurprisingly, this doesn't translate very well to film.