Sunday 4 April 2010

Where I come from 1: Pub Talk Philosophy

Dear Freddie,

The first time we talked about philosophy, we had a big fat fight. We’d been together for over a year, and so far I’d managed to escape serious conversations that had anything to do with philosophy. I’d told you from the start that I had left Holland in order to get away from philosophy and that I’d chosen Great Britain because, as far as I knew, the language didn’t allow any fallbacks. That was fine with you because you didn’t enjoy talking about matters that were beyond your capacity to change and put to good use anyway – aka philosophical conversations did your nut in.

But a couple of weeks ago, you introduced me to Charlie at the Portobello Gold. “Charlie’s writing a book,” you said. It turned out to be a book about how God spoke to Charlie when he was in prison, about how he saw Jesus when he got out, about Americans coming to London to look for Jesus, who would be ‘amongst Angels on Earth’, and about two skinned bears that were found in the snow in London in the winter of 1983 without any blood or foot prints in the vicinity. I was being playfully cynical, asking questions such as “are you sure those voices you heard had nothing to do with the brain injury you just mentioned?” , “and you think Jesus dumped those bears there?”, “oh, now I get it, you think Jesus is Bigfoot!”

When you told me, later that night, that Charlie used to be the head of the Essex Chapter of the Hells Angels, I said I felt like an idiot for being so cheeky towards possibly one of England’s most dangerous men.

"But at the same time, I know I would have felt just as foolish if I would have agreed with him. I mean, come on, it was a big load of bollocks.”

"It wasn’t all nonsense,” you said, “I think his philosophy was quite interesting.”

And that’s how it started. I said as far as I could tell his book in the making was very interesting, but not philosophical. You demanded a definition of philosophy.

“I can’t give you one, but I can assure you I didn’t spend six years in university studying pub talk and the ramblings of a retired Hells Angel with a brain injury. Thank you very much.”

“Very impressive, you spent six years in university studying something and you can’t even tell me what. At least Charlie’s trying to improve the world.”

“Yes, he is trying to make the world a better place, but that doesn’t make him a philosopher. So are you, but you’re an aerospace engineer. If anything, the fact that he’s trying to manipulate the world shows that he’s NOT a philosopher.”

“Well, then tell me what a philosopher does.”

I tried to explain that philosophers try to find words or truths that they can’t deny, and wonder why. But, as was to be expected, I failed to make you understand. I argued that I couldn’t show you what it’s like to discover a philosophical necessity in a language that wasn’t my mother tongue – because it’s all about finding nuances of words as they come naturally - not artificially (the way I learned it at school). When speaking English, I get it wrong all the time. Without making myself incomprehensible, I disobey the rules of British English all the time, in ways that are actually impossible for a native like yourself. You couldn’t make my mistakes, even if you tried.

That’s because you’re hardwired with the language, whilst I am not. I said I was hardwired with a language that was possibly more suitable for the deeper insights as well. But by neglecting Dutch, I was turning myself away from all that. So I didn’t want to talk about it.

You didn’t take my inability – interpreted as unwillingness – to explain what philosophy is well. We had a serious argument the other day, and you brought it up again. You called me a philosopher for being argumentative, for arguing for the sake of arguing – which I was, but that doesn’t make me a philosopher.

“Bloody philosophy,” you said, “it’s a waste of time. Doesn’t have a point.”

“It is,” I said, “it is useless. But that doesn’t make everything that’s useless philosophical.”

“I only said that to wind you up. It’s not useless.”

“NOW you’re winding me up. It bloody is.”

“I’ve asked a girl at Phoebe’s party for a definition of philosophy, and she agreed with me. And she was pretty smart too.”

“Was she English?”

“That’s beside the point. But yes, she was English, and she was doing a degree in Philosophy.”

“If some clever bird wants to do a degree in pub talk, that’s fine with me. Though personally, I think that art is much more enjoyable with a pint in a local. Without having to write an essay about it afterwards.”

But I love you and I don’t want you to think that I’m being selfish and just don’t want to share my background with you. So I promised to give it a go: I’ll attempt to write something that might give you a glimpse of what I’ve been doing in university for six years. I can’t promise I’ll manage. I never had any guarantee ‘philosophy would happen’ while I was in uni either. And even if, for a moment, I think my text opens up an insight, I can’t promise you’ll be capable of seeing it. I can’t do that for you. But I’ll do my best to show you that philosophy is taking place in Stairway to Heaven. If it is.



Continue readingWhere I come from 2: MA in Pedantry.


  1. But is all philosophy about precision in the use of language? I thought some of it was about morality and politics. Well, who cares? It's not worth having a row about.

  2. Wow, that's an interesting one in so many ways... I'll stay tuned

  3. als je filosofie in een andere dan je moerstaal kan leren, kun je het ook in een andere dan je moerstaal uitleggen. er lijkt mij een groot verschil tussen uitleggen wat voor dingen je doet en het doen van die dingen. je hoeft dus niet filosofie in het engels te kunnen doen om uit te kunnen leggen wat filosofie is in het engels.

    daarbij komt dat ... See moreje in die 6 jaar wel had mogen leren dat het afdoen van "ze is engels dus die kan geen filosofie doen" een wraakzuchtigheid is die vooral jezelf treft. Temeer omdat er wel degelijk filosofie bedreven is in het engels en op het engelse deel van ons continent (Hume en Hobbes om maar eens twee voorbeelden te noemen).

    Die concretisering is echter overbodig, omdat je in je kritiek voorbij gaat aan het feit dat je zodra je zegt "engels is niet geschikt" onmiddellijk je eerdere bewering ondermijnt.

  4. Ik denk dat er verschil is tussen filosofie (het soort filosofie dat je vaak leert en bijna niet verschilt van lesjes geschiedenis) en wat Deborah heeft gevolgd in de 6 jaar op uni.

  5. this is really great, more please. :)

  6. Wow, I wonder whether it’s the mention of ‘pub talk’ or ‘philosophy’ that triggered you all to read this post :)

    @ Jasper, If you read carefully, you’ll find that I didn’t make a generic statement that English isn’t suitable for philosophy. What comes closest to it is the sentence: “I said I was hardwired with a language that was POSSIBLY more suitable for the deeper insights as well. But by neglecting Dutch, I was turning myself away from all that.”
    There’s no denying that my escape to England was a hateful act directed at myself. I didn’t say British English was not suitable for philosophy – I’m quite sure the depths of the English language are endlessly greater than I’ll ever discover in my mother tongue, especially now that I’ve abandoned it. I only said that, for me, the English language wouldn’t allow any fallbacks to philosophy. Simply because I’m not hardwired with that language.
    The reason why I don’t think much of that gal’s philosophical education is that she agrees with Freddie that philosophy is ‘arguing for the sake of arguing’ and ‘useful’.... See more


  7. @GB: Especially with ethics or political philosophy I completely agree: who cares? Not me!

  8. the idea that you are hardwired with a certain language is metaphysical mumbo jumbo...made all the more useless by the fact that the guy you copied all of this from does publish in at least 2 languages that are not his own, one of which is indeed your dreaded English.

    And I would then also wonder how it is possible that you did manage to study philosophy (probably not having read a single text in dutch after your first year) in a language that is not your own and apparently learned what philosophy is through that foreign language, whilst simultaneously maintaining the impossibility of philosophy in another language than you mother tongue.

    Lastly what you consider philosophy to be is an ideological claim or decision. You claim some "empirical ground" yet what counts as "empirical ground" remains mysterious and is at best an arbitrary differentiation.

  9. Just because I spent six years in uni trying, doesn’t mean I succeeded to learn what philosophy is. Neither does the fact that I graduated. And what are you talking about mysterious empirical grounds for, aye? I didn’t bring that up. Is this a generic response you copy and paste into every conversation with someone that has been taught by Oudemans?
    And in case you hadn’t noticed, this letter is the first of a series in which I’m going to ATTEMPT something philosophical in English. Put it to a test (“empirically”, if you insist, but why would you?), rather than mumble from the side of the pool that it is or isn’t possible. If I fail, it says something about MY capacities and nothing else. But in order to take up the attempt, I must leave open the possibility that it IS possible.

  10. Well, I just like the philosophy that the aerospace engineer is trying to make the world a better place. I fully argee! Can't wait to tell my girlfriend ;)


  11. I studied philosophy at university - enjoyed it, but was far too young to appreciate it.

  12. Sometimes your hardwired language is just perfect: Gleich muß etwas bestimmt sein (»bepaalt«, sagt der Holländer), und nun glaubt man eine Weile, den unbekannten Raum zu besitzen, bis ein anderer die Pfähle wieder ausreißt und sogleich enger oder weiter abermals wieder bepfählt. Goethe-BA Bd. 18, 569

  13. Ha Harald, bedankt voor dat citaat! Ja, Goethe was duidelijk geen Nederlander, met zijn -d/-t fout!

    Hij geeft mooi aan hoe de Hollander dingen wil bepalen, inperken, als een landgoed eigen maken en bezitten, terwijl 'bestimmt' uit een heel andere sfeer woorden komt: bestemming (wat richting geeft); be-stemmen (toon geven, ergens toon aan geven, toonaangevend), ...

    Het wordt hoog tijd dat ik deel 3 ga schrijven.

  14. Des Menschen größtes Verdienst bleibt wohl,
    wenn er die Umstände soviel als möglich bestimmt
    und sich so wenig als möglich von ihnen bestimmen läßt.
    Goethe-HA Bd. 7, 405
    (vocalem reddit, ihm eine stimme gibt, ihn stimmt)

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  16. It might be a 'Verdienst' (in the sense of economical gain...) in the third installment, which is due any time now, I will try to show how, for philosophers, it has to be the other way around.

  17. In Michelangelo’s words, the sculptor “releases the hand from the marble that holds it prisoner” or, in Picasso’s statement, “the mind finds its way to the crystallization of its dream.” Peter Senge, foreword to Theory U.
    (Deutsche Version: Einen solchen mysteriösen Moment des Loslassens beschreibe Michelangelo, wenn er sage, dass der David dem Marmor schon vorher innegewohnt habe: »Ich habe nur alles weggenommen, was nicht David war.« Oder ein solcher sei auch in Picassos Beschreibung spürbar, dass »der Verstand Wege findet, seinen Traum zu kristallisieren«.)
    Origin myths of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven abound on the internet. Many of them describe “Einen solchen mysteriösen Moment des Loslassens”, as if the song “crystallized” into existence. I look forward to your third installment.