It all depends on what we mean by ‘philosophy’. Many philosophers nowadays argue that the problems of philosophy have no solution. In which case they are better classified as ‘pseudo problems’ —conceptual muddles which look at first like genuine ‘problems’, but which are, against expectations, irremediable, and hence here to stay. This says pretty plainly that <<it is no use looking for solutions>>: it seems to be pronouncing that <<to think in a very general ‘philosophical’ way about things is a waste of time>>.
Whether there is any serious rationale behind such a sweepingly negative, pessimistic pronouncement is another matter. It looks very much like a knee-jerk, emotive reaction against conceptual analysis… a stance borne of frustration and weary resignation. If so, such “philosophy” is not going to contribute much to renewing reason. These blogs, though, are based on the premiss that renewing reason must be the first step towards taking-on —and eventually resolving— the multiple deep crises which (almost everyone can see) are threatening the very existence of civilised, humane, rational society. For about sixty years tacit hedonism and glossy consumer experiences quietly became the No. 1 pre-occupation of the metropolitan classes. This priority, though, reflects an intrinsic inward-looking mindset, which always openly risked paying insufficient attention to significant changes in the global prospects for the human race. It may be likened to the narrative notion that the captain of the Titanic left his binoculars behind in Southampton. We were not scanning the horizon for incipient dangers. But however we describe it, the outcome has been that we find ourselves in this multiple crisis situation. The imperatives of survival now apply. We urgently need a renewal of reason —across a great arc of contentious areas— as the main accomplishment capable of extricating us out of this dangerous hole. Nominal complaints about “frustration” and “weariness” are out of order. The main imperative must be to switch to thinking clearly, widely and fearlessly —to secure a way towards a happy, exciting, sustainable future.
Procrastination, in the form of woozy doubts about whether there can be a <<happy, exciting sustainable future>> is out. In liberal democracies —where we have inherited the precious capacity to think freely— here, particularly, we need to be going into overdrive to figure-out the path towards a hopeful mid 21st century.
Fortunately some new exciting concepts of a very general kind are beginning to emerge, and they can have a positive effect on renewing reason —if only by concentrating and warming-up the thoughts of some of that now smallish band of already thoughtful people.
Is there really any need to renew reason? Yes! Yes! Yes! We are enduring a gross loss of reasoning at the present time relative to the standards of the past: it is palpable, visible, everywhere. Children are no longer being actively taught in schools to reason, unless they are lucky enough to have a thoughtful, non-conformist teacher who does try to teach some reasoning —against the grain of an oppressive “cognitive science” schooling ideology, which has been throwing its main emphasis for forty years on getting children to swallow supposedly “useful” information.
There is a common habit nowadays of assuming that ordinary arguments and controversies are going to be resolved —not by reasoning— but by marshalling more, stronger and sharper information than the other side. (This turns human debate and controversy into something like “propaganda war”.)
In mathematics generally the amount of reason being deployed has greatly diminished in recent times. This is hardly surprising, because the subject is now routinely taught in schools as an activity mainly based on tiresome “handle turning”, rather than fielding any trace of daring, perceptive or imaginative thinking.
There are many much-trodden websites today which creak and groan because they have been put together hastily and without sufficient reasoning. The programmers should be asking themselves <<whatever is the inquirer visiting this website most likely looking for?>>. Instead, many seem to writing software to look as impressive as possible —massive, multi-purpose, daunting and stuffed with over-information.
When Crossrail opened its doors on May 24th, the first things most travellers needed to know was <<how do we get to the new stations using existing lines and buses?>>. But the software experts allocated to the Launch of the Service evidently never thought in this way about their remit. The Crossrail website had plenty of maps, of all sizes, showing its new overall routes. But the maps which were really needed were quite detailed local maps of the spaces between existing rail/bus infrastructure and the new Crossrail stations.
These are just a few examples of the endemic poverty of reasoning which is impoverishing our quality of life today. It goes without saying that, the dearth of reasoning being applied to the mundane nuts and bolts of modern life, is all-of-a-piece with an even deeper dearth of reasoning directed at understanding wider things: or if you prefer, <<seeing the big picture in a way which makes most sense>>.
So these blogs presuppose that we regard ‘philosophy’ as thinking of the most general kind… aimed, tacitly, at finding how to <<make sense of things in a general way>>. At all levels of perception the way to understand puzzling things is to see them firmly in context in their appropriate wider perspective. Philosophy, of the kind involved in these blogs, is simply the application of this principle on the broadest scale. It has almost disappeared. By and large, we (as a society) are not making much sense of things in a general or well-balanced way. Lucidity seems to have virtually disappeared.
Is academic philosophy the answer? Hardly.
Academic philosophy seems to be going through a barren patch where it is making no attempt to conceal the fact that it is sleepwalking forward, engaging in scholastic, hair-splitting arguments, many of a trivial, short-sighted kind… which should have been consigned to the bin after Wittgenstein vividly showed in the 1930s how words work, i.e. carry their meaning. (It is a down-to-earth, robust mechanism which is wholly unsuited to hair-splitting type manoeuvres.) Scholasticism in philosophy is becoming, once again, a force for mental obfuscation, not illumination. Generality, wide vistas, far-sighted emphases and goals… all these essential elements in a healthy society seem to have been lost. Unfortunately for us, and for Wittgenstein himself, he was let down by his own, most ardent, supporters… because they latched on to his deep cultural pessimism and his gradually increasing anti-scientific, anti-mathematic attitudes. They should turn to the photo of the young Wittgenstein in Ray Monk’s splendid biography. There they will see a young man bursting with promise and ideas for the future, not the near-cultural nihilist he was later reckoned to have become —according to his disgruntled posthumous disciples.
The arrival of anti-mathematics, like the discovery of anti-matter, changes everything. It can’t be undiscovered. It puts traditional mathematics into perspective as a still valuable inquiry into the logic of timeless reality. But timeless reality is only half the story. There is also transcient reality, which first appeared with Quantum Theory in the 1900s. It, too, has a logic, quite different from the timeless variety. And a great deal of grandiose, presumptive thinking, which arose from the notion that timeless reality was all there was… this can now be consigned to the footnotes of history.
CHRISTOPHER ORMELL 1st June 2022