This morning on my run I noticed a small black bird perched on the edge of a very large building. Just sitting there. How many feet above ground this building was, I'm not sure, but neither you nor I would lounge and relax as this bird did so well. Was it planning its next flight? Had it sat there before? Was this its usual crouch? How come I often fall to the ground while tripping over small stones, yet this bird with the brain the size of my left testicle (I'm estimating here)can somehow rest assured that its poise and its wings won't just once let it down? To sit, on the edge, of a building. Good lord. And not be contemplating suicide while doing so. That must be the mark of an ignorant kind of small genius.
Don't mind me. Just my own form of philosophical gunk. Mostly because I just finished reading a rather wise book by Brian Magee called CONFESSIONS OF A PHILOSOPHER, and it's got me thinking again about all the questions I ask myself when the lights lose their glow. Magee, a British writer, former MP, television host, and, it goes without saying, a keen philospher, examines the arc of his own life through the prism of his philosophical obessions that began at a rather young age, starting around the time when he confided to his sister that it was rather bewildering how he could never remember the exact moment he fell asleep each night, and she responded, rather exasperated, that NObody does, silly. Thus began his questioning of life and its endlessly enigmatic, befuddled, bedazzling mysteries.
I can make my own confession here, which is that I couldn't quite follow all the summaries and encapsulations of the famous philosophers he's studied and revered throughout all his long years -- Kant, Schopenhauer, Karl Popper, etc -- but he does a workmanlike shop of making even an imbecile like me get the gist of the central theories. And I'm comforted by the fact that the book ends on an almost tender note, with Magee confessing that, after decades of study, he's no longer closer to understanding any answers that have arisen from his intellcttual pursuits -- but at least he's found a way to ask more interesting questions.
Just what I like -- no answers. The older I get, the less answers I want. Just give me questions -- better questions, more colourful questions, more infuriating questions. They cause me to ask more quesions, and more, and when somebody actually tries to answer life's puzzles, I find myself exasperated, almost pissed off. "Don't GIVE me your 'truths'," I always think to myself. "Let me formulate my own lies."
Take death. One section of the book -- I can't remember which, and I can't remember who he's quoting, and I'm lovin' this because this is not school and I don't need a footnote, woo-hoo adulthood, and screw academia! -- formulates a wonderful notion concerning death, namely, that we'll never know what it's like. Think of it this way: When we're alive, it's literally impossible to experience what death will be like, as we're still alive during the pondering, and when we finally die, the 'me' that is so concerned will no longer be around to experience it. This is true irregardless of whether or not you're a religious believer or a fervent atheist; if you think there's an afterlife, whatever makes you 'you' will most definitely be transformed into another, non-material self, and if you're an atheist, well, you DEFINITELY won't be around to experience it, because there's nothing to experience at all. I find this kind of hypothesis (which he acknowledges is only just that) almost comforting. We'll never actually get to know death at all. "What a rip!" as we all used to say. Yet what a relief, too!
Magee also does a wonderful job of exposing some of the ridiculous trends of philosophy that have overtaken the academic world in the past fifty years, none of which I can articulate at length, but most of which centre upon the study of philosophy as a purely linguistic category, with the focus on 'meaning' being reduced to the semantic explanation of how words, by themselves, in conjunction with each other, create the fabric of life.
In Magee's view, philosophy has completely lost its target; by studying the great philosophers, one is grappling with the ancient concerns, fears and hopes of man from the beginning of civilization itself. Having philosophy centre itself on language itself is a ridiculous notion because, as Magee brilliantly elaborates, we live most of our lives in a non-linguistic kind of state. We eat, fart, drive, walk, talk, all of it fueled by this vague, sort-of-fluid 'ghost in the machine' that somehow forms our notion of consciousness, but rarely, if ever, is it reduced to mere words. Think about it -- the shirt you put on this morning, the toast you almost burned, the hand in your own crotch the last time you got off. Nothing 'verbal' was going on; billions of neurons were firing together and these somehow led you to take certain actions that led to other actions, which led to sensations, both good and bad (or usually indifferently dull), and words formed no part of any of it. We use words to talk, to write, but they are approximations of that invisible 'stuff' that somehow makes up our lives, both inner and outer. Your eyes our moving down this screen; your fingers are scratching your cheek; you're suppressing the burp that so madly wants out. A hundred, thousand, million sounds, sights, smells and sighs make up each perceptual moment of your day, and this is your life, and if philosophy wants to believe that meaning itself is nothing more than words doing their own linguistic form of slow waltz, well, Magee ain't havin' it. Life is about the deep, abiding, resonant questions that cause children to wonder just what it all means. Philosophy should, at its roots, allow those fundamental seeds to still sprout.
A good book, it is. Highly recommended.
Now back to that bird.
Does it think these things?
I don't think so.
It just sits on that ledge, letting the morning grow grey.
I would like that, too. To sit on a roof. Not worry about falling.
But I'm down on the ground, with gravel my foe as my toes find a fault.
Why me? I wonder. Why can't I rise from this earth and find a perch like that bird?
But if I knew, I wouldn't be able to ask those questions, would I. That bird doesn't seem to question much, if anything. He sits and then soars; I fall and ask why. Who's got the more enviable position? You tell me. (Or, better yet, don't.)