Once long ago, I was an academic philosopher. Philosophy meant everything to me. Over and over, it taught me how to look at things in such a way that they could never seem the same again. But if you had asked me why or how, in those days, I would not have been much use. “Sorry,” I would have said, “but it’s too complicated. If you want to understand, then first read this stack of books. Take extra care with the ones on formal logic, and be sure to complete all the exercises and check your answers. Then we can talk.”
Since then, my career has taken a different turn, which has given me time to step back: back from the academic obligation to work out who said what first, and to analyse the nuance of each author’s intentions; back from the duty to survey competing theories on every subject; back from a mess of detail; and perhaps most importantly, back from the urge to find my own angle on every topic.
The perspectives that philosophy gave me still remain, as I’m sure they always will, but with each passing year, as I look back and ask “What was that all about?”, the answers get shorter and plainer. They haven’t yet shrunk to the size of a tweet or bumper-sticker, but some good things will fit in a blog post now.
So, after all this stepping back, I’m ready to step forward. I’m here to present the most important lessons I’ve learned, via the shortest paths I know. I won’t pretend that the ideas are my own, but nor will I get bogged down over attribution. I won’t try to survey the whole range of alternative theories. No textbooks, no homework; all I ask from you is your curiosity, and your willingness to follow an argument, even when it leads to places that were never on your radar.
That accounts for one strand of this blog, but I’m sure there will also be times when I take a break from philosophy and write about whatever is the buzz on the day. When that happens, I plan to step back and step forward in a different sense.
You see, it strikes me that the blogosphere, and social media, contain an awful lot of repetition. People like to “add their voice” to things. Sometimes it’s overt, by reposting, retweeting, or signing online petitions. Other times people repeat the trending proposition in their own words. Perhaps as an attempt to break the monotony, some add autobiographical details, narrating their personal passion for the cause, or attaching photos of old slogans on new placards, held up by their own hands. So every new ripple swells into a wave of greater and greater size and intensity, but all without an increase in the supply of reasons for it; and it only lasts until flattened by the next wave.
Oh, there are arguments too, of course there are: arguments and counter-arguments and counter-counter-arguments — and I’m all in favour of that. But too often I see people follow the chain just far enough to give themselves the last word, ignoring the next counter, even when the whole internet knows how it goes. Whatever the debate might be, this tactic is available to all sides equally, so it doesn’t explain why a given author has chosen one side rather than another, nor give me a reason to choose that side myself. In short, it does nothing that an argument is supposed to do.
When I blog on controversial topics, I promise to do my best not to fall into these patterns. I will try to stand back from the waves of repetition, and look for ways to step forward: to work out how to choose a side, or find a new side, or at least find some clarity. For example, say the topic is global warming. I won’t tell you for the umpteenth time that global mean temperatures have been trending flat since 1999, and leave it at that. Nor shall I tell you that the ten hottest years on record have all occurred within that period, and stop there. What I might do is point out that the two statements are mathematically compatible, then wonder aloud why one is often put up as a rebuttal of the other, and see how a recognition of their compatibility might shift the debate.
So that’s the plan: one blog, with two strands: philosophy and popular controversies. Then again, I don’t want to fence myself in. In time I may step back from the plan and step forward in some other direction. Let’s see.