The Making of a Philosopher (Part Two)

The Making of a Philosopher (Part Two)

The following is a sequel of sorts to my The Making of a Philosopher (2002). Like that work, this is to be an intellectual memoir, not a marital, medical, musical, or muscular one—a memoir of the mind. It’s about what has gone on in my head.

I originally applied to university to study economics. This seemed like a practical subject, destined to provide employment, and I was already taking an A-level in it (for which I subsequently obtained an A). My strong subjects in school were mathematics and English (not too much memorization), and economics combined the two nicely. I might easily have become a professional economist (I still take an interest in the subject). But I happened to read some Freud and found it fascinating, so I switched to psychology in my applications. This subject too would lead to gainful employment, possibly in the educational field (I had no thoughts of an academic career). I was trying to be sensible, but not bored; after all, it is your whole life we are talking about. This occurred around 1968, a momentous year on the world stage. I therefore studied psychology at Manchester University, obtaining my degree in 1971 (B.A., First Class), followed by an M.A. in psychology in 1972. Philosophy formed a small part of my undergraduate degree: an introductory course on Plato and Sartre and a history and philosophy of science course. I also did some independent reading in philosophy, but nothing like what a student of philosophy might undertake; I was woefully undereducated in that regard. Nevertheless, I ended up studying philosophy at Oxford on the B.Phil. in 1972 (long story, recounted in my aforementioned book). That was a considerable challenge, because everyone else on the course had a substantial (and exceptional) undergraduate education in philosophy, of a kind alien to my own undergraduate acquaintance with the subject (Husserl and Adolph Grunbaum mainly). I had a lot of catching up to do, to put it mildly. I am surprised I came out the other end in one piece.

In 1974 I began my first philosophy job at University College London, after a mere two years of studying philosophy (four years of psychology before that). I didn’t teach philosophy of mind and made no use of my two degrees in psychology (including a good deal of experimental psychology). I mainly taught philosophical logic and philosophy of language (my first lecture course was on truth). I was very conscious of the fact that my philosophical education was patchy, embarrassingly so, and that I had never had the chance to do any serious research in philosophy; I could really have used a couple of years on a JRF or something similar. From then on, I was on the academic treadmill: tutorials, lectures, committees, writing for the journals, book reviewing—the usual routine. I never had much time to immerse myself more widely and deeply in philosophy, though I tried as best I could. And so it continued for the next 38 years! I got through my career, but always going from pillar to post, always rushed, pressured, tired, anxious, barely managing to keep my head above water. I never had the opportunity to just let my mind go where it wanted to go, read whatever I wanted to read, write whatever I felt like writing, think about whatever I liked. I never had that kind of philosophical leisure. I suppose I could say that I had no philosophical freedom. I never had that couple of years to develop my philosophical mind under conditions of unimpeded reflection. I got used to it, but it always grated, rankled, irritated. I imagine it must be much the same for many people: not enough time, not enough energy, too many obligations.

Then I retired (2013). Everything suddenly changed. The pressure was off. The treadmill had been discarded. No more teaching, no more department work, precious few invitations. Each day was a free day. The year ahead was not mapped out by the demands of a university schedule. No more breaking off a train of thought because a lecture had to be delivered the next day. The immediate result was an uptick of energy and concentration: no more teaching fatigue, no more interruptions, no more having to show up for meetings of one kind or another (supervisions, office hours, department meetings, etc.). My time was my own. Let me repeat that, because it’s important: My time was my own. I could do with it whatever my heart desired; I was subject to no temporal demands (Do this! Do that!). I was thus able to immerse myself in philosophical thinking, reading, and writing without external impositions—for the first time in my life (I’m not counting childhood). This produced a qualitative change in my state of mind, my philosophical consciousness, my very existence. I could read all the things I never had time to read, think without distraction for days on end, weeks, months, years. It has been a kind of bliss, foreign to my previous existence, a rebirth of sorts. And not only philosophy: I could read all the literature and science I ever wanted to read, which also contributes to one’s philosophical development. Writing becomes a pleasure not a torment, because there isn’t that nagging feeling that you will have to break off soon in order to fulfill your professional duties. You don’t have to quit in mid-sentence, mid-thought. Can you imagine? Being a professor uses up a lot of energy—have you noticed that?—and this energy could be deployed in other pursuits. To retire is to be reborn (but don’t leave it too late). I also don’t feel that I have to sacrifice other aspects of my life to the academic treadmill, including personal relationships (not to mention sport, music, etc.). Apart from anything else, life becomes a lot more enjoyable.

But the main point I want to make, reporting on my own case (I am still a psychologist, remember), is that in this phase of my life I have achieved a degree of breadth and depth in philosophy that I would never otherwise have achieved. I would even say that I have become over the last ten years a different kind of philosopher. I wish I could characterize this exactly; it has to do with gaining a larger perspective, an ease of thought, a facility of expression (writing philosophy well takes years, decades, of effort). I can just see further.  So, I think of this phase of my mental life as a new philosophical life; I am not the same person philosophically. There was a time when I was a philosophical novice, a time I was an apprentice philosopher, then a time of professional maturity, and now a time not of advanced age or twinkly wisdom but of fresh growth, of new beginnings, of excitement and exhilaration. I could call it creative, but that doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head: it is more a matter of discovery, mastery, arrival. I could almost call a sequel to my old book The Making of a New Philosopher. It isn’t something I ever anticipated.

Of course, there is an irony in all this, a bitter irony one might say, over which I have no desire to dwell. I will put it as abstractly as possible. I am concerned with inner psychology not external circumstances. First, and obviously, there is this blog, the fruit of innumerable hours of quietly intense lucubration. It must be a couple of thousand pages by now. This has been my preferred mode of philosophical expression during this period of personal renaissance—short, to the point, uncluttered, unbound. It is to be noticed that this material has not found its way into print, for several reasons I won’t go into. I feel fortunate that such a method of publication now exists, or else my inner world might not have made it into the outer world. I like what I have written, more so than before. But my inner world has been removed from the outer world of academic philosophy, producing a strange schism in my self-consciousness. It’s not exactly Socrates or Galileo or Russell; it is more a kind of intramural etiolation (here goes the abstraction). We might call it blank-slating, oblique erasure, identity removal. Of course, I still have good friends at the highest levels of philosophical (and other) achievement, whose names I will not mention (you can guess the reasons), so I am by no means cut off from professional contacts; and it’s true that my geographical location increases the degree of professional estrangement. Still, I feel as if nothing I say will ever be received as it once was. And, oddly enough, I don’t much care: my inner world has eclipsed my outer world—that academic carapace the professional professor carries around with him or her has been shed. My inner world has so expanded that it reaches to my subjective horizon. There has been a metamorphosis: I have become a different kind of being, curiously aloof, weirdly autonomous. It is a kind of brimming isolation, supercharged solitude. The banal life of the professional academic has been abolished, to be replaced by a peculiar kind of originality—the reborn corpse, the retired youth, the liberated prisoner. I have a paradoxical duality, the flourishing failure. And I kind of like it. My intellectual world is a world of my own creation with little extraneous intrusion.[1]

[1] I do seek out, and receive, regular feedback from my philosophical friends, so it isn’t that I rely solely on my own judgment. I am not some quivering recluse stewing in his own juices, not a bit of it.

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4 replies
  1. Colin McGinn
    Colin McGinn says:

    Is it the sheer joy of your own philosophical understanding that mainly keeps you going, or is your sharing your insights with us fortunate few also essential for your sense of wellbeing? Would you be just as happy, do you think, if nobody who was capable of understanding you paid your efforts any attention?

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      That question is from Rebecca Goldstein. My answer is that I do rely on the response of my brilliant friends to motivate me, but I could probably grind the stuff out without it. There is also a joy in the process of composition.

      Reply

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