Just walk away and don’t look back…never look back

An idea that has been quietly percolating over the last couple of months finally raised enough steam to generate action this week. But first some background…

In the latter tenth of the last decade I gave my life over almost entirely to studying philosophy. Not the hippy slippy new age holistic pseudo-scientific pick and mix buffet of designer worldviews that were characteristic of a paranoid schizophrenic decade that in turns shivered and basked in the shadow of a looming millennium. No, I was determined to do the hard yards, learn it all, from Thales to… to.. uh..(come on, someone not dead, but not a complete arse…but well known…but not a complete arse…Got it!) the intellectual giants of the present day. So, I rocked up to Cardiff Uni with the sort of naive optimism that only the completely ignorant can muster and started reading, writing, listening, arguing, repeat. For three years. Turned out I was pretty good at it, so I came to London and kept on doing it, and after reading and writing and listening and arguing (and sometimes teaching) over and over, I started this shiny new millennium with not one, but three different philosophy degrees. Officially qualified to profess on Logic, Metaphysics, Ontology, Epistemology, Language, Mind & Morality, (Ancient & Modern).

I celebrated my ascension to the giddy rank of Doctor of Philosophy by taking a break from reading and writing and arguing and in particular repeating. I was done for now. I’d done everything I’d set out to do and more. I started doing something else.

And I never went back

So what about this idea (I hear the three of you who have persevered this far say, somewhat reluctantly, not wishing to offend)?
I found myself – after thirteen years – wondering whether anyone might be interested in the final outcome of all this reading and writing and arguing and teaching. In this new digital age there is no barrier to me pulling my cheaply bound thesis down from the topmost of top shelves, and…and…what? Overcome the first obstacle is what. Although I wrote the damn thing electronically, I possess no digital copy, and frankly, my funds rarely stretch to luxuries. This particular episode of whimsy was definitely filed under ‘self-indulgent luxuries’ so, as getting my thesis scanned and sticked was out of the question, nothing to do but sit down and type it out all over again.

 Ugh! Unnecessary bold and underline, inconsistent (and unnecessary) capitalisation, pointless full stop

I must admit I rather relished the idea of physically recreating the past by repeating each individual keystroke that survived the final edit. While applying the mandatory level of procrastination required before undertaking such an epic task I mused about the impending pleasures of re-inhabiting my younger self; what insights might this adventure yield? Procrastination, as it so rarely does, led to the first act. I began dutifully retyping the abstract, noticing that it was probably the last part I’d written, despite living proudly on the first page. Halfway through I stopped. I read what I’d written. I closed the laptop lid. I opened it so I could shut it down completely. Computer off. Cheaply bound thesis replaced out of reach. I’d found out what I needed to know, what I should have known but somehow had forgotten. I didn’t care. I really didn’t care. I didn’t care about the argument between the Simulation theorists and the Propositional theorists about Theory of Mind. I didn’t care about my contribution to that argument, I didn’t even care about my exegesis of Aristotle’s concept of phantasia in De Anima which suggested a new perspective on the role of imagery in conscious thought. And if I didn’t care, I couldn’t imagine anyone else caring. Certainly not enough to read 300,000 words about it.

This experience has led me to a question. I am convinced that my knowledge of philosophy benefits me in a multiplicity of ways. It informs my decisions and enhances my experience. So why is it that I cannot abide academic philosophical writing? Why is it I can’t bring myself to engage in the endless sub-sub arguments, each one more multiply qualified and over referenced than the last? Why is it that the philosophy generated by the academy, my own contribution included, is so very dry and, ultimately, about so very little?
So, that happened this week
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2 Responses to Just walk away and don’t look back…never look back

  1. John says:

    I get the same thing, as I drew to the close of what used to be a PhD thesis but what eventually turned into an MPhil thesis I started to question the methods I’d so painstakingly succumbed to. I chose to do philosophy to experiment with big questions but the further you go in the more little questions you meet. The sad thing is that so few working philosophers seem to be bold enough to take on a big question any more and any attempt to do so at thesis stage is basically laughed at. The weird thing is I still love the topic, I still read philosophy regularly and I even teach it to adult learners in my spare time (I work in a toy shop now 😛 ). Maybe I’m too cynical about modern philosophical method, after all so much is crowd-sourced nowadays perhaps splitting the big questions into little questions lightens the load and increases the chance of finding an answer. Great post, Cheers 🙂

  2. Hi John, thanks for your comments. I often wonder how many of us are out there. Undercover philosophers sneaking in our insights and gently questioning assumptions in a world blissfully unaware of our ninja level analytic skills (I wish). I think its okay to love the questions but hate the style in which they are debated. The simple fact is I’d just forgotten how awful academic writing is to read. I don’t think its the fault of the practitioners – many manage to write perfectly coherent and entertaining articles for non-peer reviewed publication – but the product of a stultifying system. The profession famously demands frequent articles whether you’ve got something to say or not. The monopoly of distribution by the Academic journals, which price themselves out of any popular market, creates an artificial bubble. Philosophers are only read by other philosophers (if at all) and they develop their own distinct and impenetrable local dialects (even within and between specialities).
    There is good news though, the internet is gradually breaking the back of the Journal’s monopoly across academia, and the phenomenal rise of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) is forcing individual academics to engage far more with the outside world. Good news for some, not so good for others.
    Nice to meet you John, I look forward to blogging along with you.

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