Friday July 10, 2009
For the last week, I’ve been away in Devon, celebrating my friend Nagapriya‘s birthday. It has been a delightful week of blustery showers, sunshine and countless hours spent on glorious walks through the countryside, talking philosophy. And one of the things I have been particularly enjoying is that these conversations have been rooted in the kind of attention to everyday life and concern with everyday practice that is all too often lacking in academic circles.
One thing that I have been interested in for a long time is the kind of tone that philosophical discussion takes. If philosophy is a kind of practice, then questions of tone, and questions of how we actually engage with each other, questions of the kind of rhetoric that we employ, questions of how we treat each other when engaged in discussion, all matter profoundly. Michel Serres, one of my philosophical heroes, writes of a Greek vase that depicts two people, sitting opposite each other and engaged in lively debate. But when you look more closely, you see that underneath their chairs lurk two hideous little monsters just waiting to pounce. How, Serres asks, can we manage to engage in debate, without letting those monsters crawl out from under the chairs to sow discord? And so much discussion and debate – both inside and outside of the academic world – seems to give these mischievous demons free rein. But for the past few days, those particular monsters do not seem to have been much in evidence, and I have been remembering again that there is a kind of delight to be had in philosophical discussion in the company of friends.
One thing that this brings to mind is a little footnote in that I came across in John Cage’s book Silence. I love footnotes in the same way that I love those curious little pictures in the margins of medieval manuscripts: they are little sideshows where things can happen that are often more interesting than the main text itself. Anyway, the footnote concerns the early translator of Zen to the West, D.T. Suzuki:
An Indian lady invited me to dinner and said Dr. Suzuki would be there. He was. Before dinner I mentioned Gertrude Stein. Suzuki had never heard of her. I described aspects of her work, which he said sounded very interesting. Stimulated, I mentioned James Joyce, whose name was also new to him. At dinner he was unable to eat the curries that were offered, so a few uncooked vegetables and fruits were brought, which he enjoyed. After dinner the talk turned to metaphysical problems, and there were many questions, for the hostess was a follower of a certain Indian yogi and her guests were more or less equally divided between allegiance to Indian thought and to Japanese thought. About eleven o’clock we were out on the street walking along, and an American lady said, “How is it, Dr. Suzuki? We spend the evening asking you questions and nothing is decided.” Dr. Suzuki smiled and said, “That’s why I love philosophy; no one wins.”
John Cage, Silence. p.40
The idea that, when it comes to philosophy, no one wins, is one that requires a little more scrutiny. I do think that there are better and worse philosophical arguments – philosophy is not just a matter of me saying “well, I think A,” and somebody else saying, “well, I think B (or not-A)”, and then leaving it at that. Philosophy, that is to say, is not a free-for-all. And yet, at the same time, what I think characterises genuine philosophical discussion – or what characterises the kind of philosophical discussion that I think is worth having – is a kind of shared inquiry, a kind of mutual exploration of the world and of our place in the world in which we are no longer concerned with winning or losing, but in which we are guided instead by that wonder which Aristotle said was the beginning (and maybe – who knows? – the end) of philosophy.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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