Philosophical me (1)
How I turned from an Aristotelian into a modern philosopher
When asked about my profession I usually say “journalist”, “science journalist” or “software entrepreneur.” Very rarely “philosopher”, although that is what I studied and graduated in. It tends to put people off.
I did my GCE “A-levels” at Wolsey Hall in Oxford, while living in Hamburg, Germany, many decades ago. The “Advanced Level” examinations are conducted by educational authorities in the United Kingdom and British Crown dependencies, and awarded to students completing secondary or pre-university education.
One of my A-Level subjects was Logic, and I spent half a year studying Aristotle’s logical works to prepare for it. These provide a highly developed logical theory, the earliest of its kind, and one that commanded immense respect for many centuries.
Now I have logical inclinations and devoured Aristotle’s Organon with gusto. But I was not wholly comfortable with the figures of the Aristotelian syllogisms. I could handle them pretty well, but never understood the practical relevance. For instance from the premises “all Greeks are humans”, and “all humans are mortal” you must conclude (can you guess?) that some mortals are Greeks. Really. It is only when you put it in the correct form, (1) all humans are mortal and (2) all Greeks are human, that you can more usefully conclude that all Greeks are mortal. For purely formal reasons.
Still, even if Aristotle and the Greek philosophers did not make you wiser, in a practical sense, they made you wonderfully erudite. When university studies started I first tried medicine, but gave up after one semester. It involved too much by heart learning, and everything was in a foreign language — Latin. You have to say ligamentum tibiofibulare anterium instead of front ankle ligament (which I have just injured in an accident, in June 2016). So I tried mathematics, but it turned out to be too hard — you have to have a certain kind of brain for it, which I do not have. Still, fooling around with the newly invented “computers” was fascinating, and I became quite adept at programming on and actually reading punched tape.
I ended up in the Philosophical Department of the University of Hamburg. There I was quickly “discovered” by a professor named Menne, a logician who treated me like a precious jewel he had found. I was the only one, in a sea of students mainly interested in revolutionary social philosophy, who could handle Aristotelian figures (and mnemonics like Darapti, Felapton, Bramantip and Fesapo) with a fair degree of virtuosity, and this he, a classical philosopher, treasured. Menne planned my entire career for me, one that would culminate in a PhD and tenure as a lecturer in classical philosophy at university level.
For almost a year I deepened my knowledge of Greek philosophy, adding Plato and a host of very interesting (and amazing) thinkers to my repertoire. I read Łukasiewicz, who axiomatized the classical Aristotelian system, and took up metaphysics, especially Immanuel Kant and a bit of Hegel. I also dabbled in the Pragmaticism surrounding Charles Sanders Peirce. It was a good time where I was invited to speak at “seminars” — advanced discussion groups — with Prof. Menne smiling proudly in the background. He owned this young, exotic student.
But over time my misgivings only deepened: first of all it was difficult for me to fathom how philosophical teachings that were over two thousand years old were still fully valid. Hadn’t there been an Erkenntnisfortschritt (advance in knowledge and discovery) during that time? Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest philosophers in history, said “nothing significant has been added to Aristotle’s [logical] works in two millennia.” Is there any other area of knowledge or research where this holds true? Another problem: I didn’t really understand many of the things I was reading or learning about. And they didn’t seem to have any practical relevance.
Then came a decisive moment, a watershed. My best friend and mentor at University was a PhD student specializing in Kant and German metaphysics. Werner was a few years older than me, brilliant, an excellent speaker, and very, very funny. When we went to student pubs or parties he was always the most entertaining person around. He had three extraordinary talents: Werner could sing a few bars of operatic music in the style of a heroic tenor — it took your breath away; he could hold bursts of Hitler speeches — okay, not really tasteful, but hilariously accurate in accent and verbiage; and Werner could speak philosophical nonsense. You could give him any subject and he would do a two-minute metaphysical discussion of it. I wish I could give you a sample, and actually tried to compose something. But it was nowhere near what Werner could extemporize. Memorable was a discourse on “soap bubbles”, a subject someone had suggested. His ontological ramblings on the existence and subsequent non-existence of objects, using Hume, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger to support his theses, had us rolling in the isles with laughter.
Well, one day I was sitting in a university seminar in metaphysics, feeling totally depressed at how little I was able to follow or in any way appreciate. Next to me sat Werner, who was also squirming. At some stage, he raised his hand and started to speak. I immediately recognized what he was doing: spouting virtuoso philosophical nonsense, just like he did in pubs and at parties. I sank deep into my chair, embarrassed and horrified. This was a serious advanced seminar, how could he do it? And worst of all: everybody knew he was my friend.
Werner spoke for a number of minutes, and finished before I was able to slink out in shame. However, when he was done the professor, one of the most senior in the department, paused for a few seconds and then said something like the following: “Those are indeed interesting theses, and your reasoning seems to be quite compelling. We should all reflect on what you have said and will certainly come back to it during this course.”
It was shattering: I realized that what we were doing in this metaphysical seminar was learning and practising a philosophical vocabulary that could be used in pretend discourse. It all sounded tremendously learned and impressed outsiders no end. But it didn’t necessarily need to make sense or in any way contribute to Erkenntnisfortschritt. Insider jargon, in-group bonding rituals.
This incident, and my general dissatisfaction, led to a big crisis in the first stage of my studies. Could I go on with this kind of philosophy, purely because it was a propitious path to an attractive university career? I’d have done it, if it was just a little closer to my mental affinities, if it were something I could understand and relate to a little more closely. But as it stood my classical philosophical career was over.
End of part one. In the next section I will tell you how things proceeded, how I did not abandon my studies or change to some completely different area, but in fact discovered that Philosophy today is so much more than what I had been doing, and so much more relevant to our lives in the modern world.