28 Feb 2010

Everything you always wanted to know...

Here is an interview with yours truly from the philosophy forum where I waste most of my life these days. It's less than a year old, so hot news.

An evening with unenlightened

Caldwell: Hello, unenlightened. It's my pleasure to spend some time and expose some enlightening moments with you. Your humor and witty remarks make your posts philosophically readable and engaging. Tell me what you think of that style of writing.

unenlightened: I've never tried to create a style, just to be as clear and simple as I can. But I do like to play with words, and sometimes a little humour can clarify something that sometimes gets forgotten - that the world is not constrained by what we have to say about it, even if we can 'prove it'. How many times has it been proved that nothing has any meaning? But it is only talk that needs meaning, which it gets by reflecting the world; the world itself is not a reflection. So as long as one doesn't live entirely in one's head, one is quite safe from meaninglessness and can afford to be amused by it.

So I suppose my style comes from that philosophy that thinks that philosophy is important but not serious, or do I mean serious but not important? Whichever, it's not life.

Caldwell: As long as one doesn't live entirely in one's head. The natural language philosophers would agree with you. Our interaction with each other, through our language, injects and reinforces meaning in our words and action. So, how is philosophy not life? Most especially in the kind of work you do, working with the disabled, how does philosophy play a role?

unenlightened: Yes, I suppose I should qualify that by saying that from the point of view of life, there is no separation, language and thought are part of life; but in thought there is this divide, which is inescapable in that it is the way language works.

It is quite a privilege to work with disabled people, and I find in general, that they are kinder, happier, and more positive than the average. When someone needs help to go to the toilet, for instance, it is so simple, natural and intimate that words are unnecessary and ineffectual to describe it. Ego and intellect find no purchase there, sentiment has no place either, but there is a relationship of life to life. So I think I would say that it is my work that plays a role in my philosophy, rather than the other way round, in that I am always aware of the limitation and emptiness of all theory; there is much that it cannot capture - everything important in fact. I think that disability tends to hold one close to the physicality of life, and the necessity of relationship, and there is to be found the joy and significance that one cannot match in thought. Talk is part of that relationship, but cannot capture the whole.

Caldwell: Let us, then, try to capture the image in your avatar. What is it, or what is it about? I think it has some significance in the work you do.

unenlightened: It's a picture my daughter, Yemaya, drew when she was two and a half. It's the terrace where we lived, and it says "I live here." for those who can't read phonetically. If I was being extravagant, I might say it is her 'cogito' - the beginning of a philosophy. Anyway, it is a joyful expression of the beginnings of conscious thought and the power of image and language. Plus to me it is a sentimental reminder of innocent times gone by. she's doing her A levels now: English, maths, sociology, and plans to study journalism at university. So I expect to see her in a few years on the telly, announcing, "I am here outside 10 Downing Street..." or some such.

But I'm thinking of changing it to a picture of one of our local goats.

Caldwell: smiling face A nice beginning. A cogito, yes. It is also Wittgenstein in a way. Your daughter says "I live here." with certainty. I think it is melancholic to look at it, now that you have explained what it is.

You have a blog. You write prolifically, like many blog writers. Tell me about this need to have a blog. Is it like a shrine? Certainly, it's not a private place.

unenlightened: A shrine? More like a garbage dump! grin But I haven't done anything with it for ages. These days I tend to empty the rubbish from my head straight into the forums. Looking back at various things I've written, I tend to think, 'well that makes some kind of sense', but it doesn't seem all that important - I'm much more interested in what I'm doing now; this question, not the question I was trying to answer a few years ago. So it sits there in case anyone wants to know some background about me; it might be useful if one wants to understand what I am saying now, I'm not sure. There again, it might be an idea to update it; I could put this interview on there maybe. I think I started it out of a certain frustration and loneliness that probably quite a lot of forum members feel, that there are very few people around that one can really engage with. It is quite a rare thing, even on this forum, to achieve a real meeting of minds that is mutually productive, and that is what I think I am mainly concerned with - how communication can breach the walls that isolate the self. That is the attraction of religion and nationalism, is it not, that they give the illusion of participating in a greater whole? Ha! Philosophy Forums as a new religion... Being banned is going to hell! Oh dear, that makes me some kind of a priest. shaking head

Caldwell: Very well put. grin I think that is a very good reason for having that blog, that need to connect, which is, as you rightly said, common to many forum members. PF as a new religion. Hmmm, not bad. Yes, it is communication to a wider group. So, now, let us test your culinary taste. Tell us your attitude about food. And while you're at it, how you do you spend your leisure time when you're not here at the forums?

unenlightened: Ah, my stomach is a subject close to my heart. I blame Tolstoy for making me a vegetarian; I decided long ago that I didn't want to be responsible for someone else having a job of killing animals for me, and I found I didn't much like doing it myself, although when I kept chickens, and they stopped laying eggs, well they got recycled. But I like making and eating bread, and all kinds of cake and pudding, although, come to think of it I haven't contributed to the recipe thread yet - maybe a Danish pastry would be good?

Otherwise, I'm very much a home-body, repairing the house and so on. I used to keep an allotment (a rented vegetable patch, for the non-Brits) but my back is not in a fit state these days, so I go for longish walks most days instead. In my youth, I was involved with alternative education, and I lived for some years in a commune in France, but these days I am tediously conventional and small minded. House, family, work, and snarling at the telly; that's my life outside the forums - which explains why I'm here more than I'm not, I suppose. My partner writes, paints, and tutors primary school children after school, and I tell her where she's going wrong in all those of course. It's a small, unimportant life, but I do enjoy it, by and large.

Caldwell: Tediously conventional and small minded? Small, unimportant life? Strangely, this short description of your daily life sounds just about right; and not preoccupied with tech gadgets. Isn't that the life conducive to philosophical pondering? You did, at one point, write something about Eastern philosophy. What do you think of this philosophy as it relates to today's fast and quick-changing exchange of ideas?

unenlightened:That's a heck of a big question, and calls for some outrageous generalisations; so leaving out Confucious, and all the other stuff that doesn't fit my prejudices, I think Eastern philosophy is more psychologically sophisticated. When you talk about 'the exchange of ideas', it rather nicely indicates the Western tradition, which is that the goal is to bring thought to order using thought itself. If we can get the right ideas, and properly organise them, then all will be well. There is not the same faith in ideas in eastern philosophy, rather they are seen as a hinderance to 'the good life'. There is something of this in Wittgenstein, and perhaps others, but the state of mind of the philosopher is really not much considered in the West, only the coherence of the ideas therein.

So my best understanding of the depth of Eastern philosophy, is that thought cannot bring thought to order, and that when there is a very clear realisation of this fact - which means a direct, immediate insight, not another thought - then there is a natural quieting of the mind, and in that quiet is the order that thought seeks and never finds. But when one articulates this, it is just another idea to add to the 'exchange of ideas' unless one is actually following the movement of one's thoughts, and seeing how everything is transformed and distorted into more ideas. Which is back to the problem of living in one's head again. It is the nature of thought and ideas, rather than the content, that is the concern of the East.

Caldwell: I think that is a good distinction you make between the East and the West. While the West focuses on ideas, the East concerns itself with the state of mind. Incidentally, do you practice meditation or some form of yoga? It might be good for your back, no? smiling face

unenlightened: No. I do some exercises which are vaguely yogic, but the practice of meditation, or premeditated meditation, is a contradiction to my mind; it is a form of self-hypnosis, and I am looking to de-hypnotise myself. I like to spend some quiet time, sitting or walking, and pay attention to what is running through my mind, but I neither practice nor perform it, if you see what I mean. There is a danger, I think, if one has seen the problems of Western thinking, to leap instead into the problems of Eastern thinking - they are not necessarily an improvement. Understanding where one is requires not rushing off to become something else, and only a deep understanding of oneself can bring about a real change, not this or that practice, which is just the creation of another habit.

Caldwell: Ah, that is a breath of fresh air. A deep understanding of oneself is a good philosophy. Well, unenlightened, this has been a very nice evening. I enjoyed it very much and I wish we could do it more often. We'd like to see you cook in the food thread. Also, you promised to post a picture of your local goats, so I'm going to wait for it. Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?

unenlightened:Well thank you Caldwell for some interesting questions and kind comments. There's a whole lot more I have to say, but I will save it for the forums; That seems like a good place to stop for now - suspended between East and West. And I'll try and fulfill my promises in the next few days.

Caldwell: My pleasure. smiling face Stay unenlightened.

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