Later On

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Philosophy through conversation

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Interesting essay in Aeon by Nigel Warburton:

In 1913 the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein fled the interruptions and distractions of Cambridge to live as a hermit in Norway. No one knew him there, and he could focus on his work on logic in isolation. It worked. He lodged for a while with the postmaster in Skjolden, a remote village 200 miles north of the city of Bergen, and later had a hut built overlooking the fjord. Alone, he wrestled with the ideas that would metamorphose into his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Anyone who tried to pass the time of day with him got short shrift. ‘Go away! It’ll take me two weeks to get back to the point where I was before you interrupted me,’ he is supposed to have shouted at one local who made the mistake of greeting him as he stood pondering what could not be said. From Wittgenstein’s perspective, the year he spent in Norway was the source of much of his philosophical creativity, some of the most intense thinking this markedly intense philosopher achieved in his lifetime. While there, he did little more than think, walk, whistle, and suffer from depression.

Wittgenstein ensconced in his Norwegian ‘hut’ (really, a two-storey wooden house with a balcony) is for many the model of a philosopher at work. Here the solitary genius sought out isolation that mirrored the rigours of his own austere philosophy. No distractions. No human company. Just a laser-like mind thinking about first principles, as he stood surveying the fjord or strode through the snow. Wittgenstein had precedents. The sixth-century Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy in a Roman prison cell, his mind focused by his imminent execution; Niccolò Machiavelli produced The Prince (1532) in exile on a quiet farm outside Florence; René Descartes wrote his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) curled up next to a fire. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was happiest living in the middle of a forest, away from civilisation, and so on. Philosophy in its highest forms seems intently solitary and often damaged by the presence of others.

Yet this stereotype of the genius at work in complete isolation is misleading, even for Wittgenstein, Boethius, Machiavelli, Descartes, and Rousseau. Philosophy is an inherently social activity that thrives on the collision of viewpoints and rarely emerges from unchallenged interior monologue. A closer examination of Wittgenstein’s year in a Norwegian wood reveals his correspondence with the Cambridge philosophers Bertrand Russell and G E Moore. He even persuaded Moore to travel to Norway — an arduous train and boat trip in those days — and stay for a fortnight. The point of Moore’s visit was to discuss Wittgenstein’s new ideas about logic. In fact, ‘discussion’ turned out to mean that Wittgenstein (who was still technically an undergraduate) spoke, and Moore (who was far more eminent at the time) listened and took notes.

Yet Moore’s presence was somehow necessary for the birth of these ideas: Wittgenstein needed an audience, and an intelligent listener who could criticise and help him focus his thought, even if those criticisms weren’t uttered. And he wasn’t the only one who needed an audience. Boethius in his cell imagined his visitor: Philosophy personified as a tall woman wearing a dress with the letters Pi to Theta on it. She berates him for deserting her and the stoicism she preached. Boethius’s own book was a response to her challenge.

Machiavelli, meanwhile, was indeed exiled, cut off from the intrigues of court life, a city dweller forced into a bucolic existence against his will. But in a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori of 10 December 1513, he described how he spent his evenings: he would retire to his study and conjure up the great ancient thinkers and hold imaginary conversations with them about how best to govern. These imaginary conversations were the raw material for The Prince. Descartes might have locked himself away to write, and avoided distractions by doing most of his work lying in bed, but when he came to publish hisMeditations it was with a number of critical comments from other philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes, together with his responses to their criticisms. Likewise, Rousseau loved solitude, but he included dialogues within his writing, and even wrote the bizarre book Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques (1776) in which he presented two versions of himself debating with each other.

Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. It began with a sense of mystery, wonder, and confusion, and the powerful desire to get beyond mere appearances to find truth or, if not that, at least some kind of wisdom or balance.

Socrates started the conversation about philosophical conversation. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 November 2014 at 11:50 am

Posted in Education

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