Saturday, March 24, 2007

Class Misrules

I wonder if it would be wise for a school teacher to hand out “class rules” of the following kind ie. with plausible-seeming objections attached. The idea is that they are highly likely to provoke students into thought, because they hold out the possibility of real gains (ie. a change to the rules) for anyone who thinks carefully about them.

Perhaps a student would not really consider this possibility as genuine, since a teacher who gives out rules like this (the student might reason) must be pretty confident that the counter-arguments are flawed. But even in that case it is surely healthy for a teacher to show that he or she is willing to at least consider the counter-arguments, rather than just presenting students with the sheet of unjustified rules that they have seen hundreds of times before. And the student’s suspicions about the teacher might be outweighed by the apparent force of those counter-arguments, causing the student to genuinely believe that there is something to gain by taking them up with the teacher. Or perhaps they might have no doubt that the teacher considers the arguments to be flawed; but still take them up with the teacher, or think about them themselves, to find out just how they are flawed.

I think the rules and the counter-arguments should be such that some of the former do require modification in light of the latter. It would lessen the value of the exercise if students went out of it with no sense that they could actually change things by producing good arguments in favour of their own view.

What would other teachers think? Would they be enraged to find that some idiot of a teacher had handed out a bunch of excuses and smart-alec replies to students, which those students will use against their long-suffering teachers at every opportunity? Hopefully they would not be enraged. But even if they were, one could hand out a sheet of counter-counter-arguments, to rip out at its roots the anarchic impulse to think

“The class rules are in bold. If noone comes up with good reasons to change those rules, then they stand. Otherwise, they won’t.

Arrive in class on time (this rule seems a bit fishy. Why should students come to class on time? If they can do this without disrupting anyone else, are they doing anyone any harm? You might say that they are doing a harm to themselves. But surely the best judge of that is the student, not the teacher. What does the teacher know about the many trials and temptations that draw a student away from class, and thwart their earnest attempts at punctuality? But this may not be a good reason after all, so the rule stands).

Wear a tidy uniform (but this seems a bit fishy as well. What does a person’s dress sense have to do with their school work? A school is a place for education, not for cosmetics. And students can become educated, and very well educated at that, without having the least regard for their clothing. Socrates was notorious for his bad dress sense. Perhaps this rule has something to do with giving off a good “public image,” at cafes and bus stops and places like that; the school wants to be judged well by the public. But why should we submit to being judged on our clothing? We keep hearing that it is shallow and materialistic to judge a person by what they wear: why shouldn’t this apply to schools as well as to individuals?)

Avoid profanities (But suppose that everyone used profanities all the time. Wouldn’t the profanities then lose all of their meaning, like any words that are used all the time, so that they would no longer really be swear words any more? So if everyone were allowed to swear, there would be no more swear words. So why should we ban them? If we ban them, we’re loosing a good chance to perform a public service.)

Do what the teacher says (But is it not true that people learn best when they do so on their own initiative? And teachers are always saying things like “use your initiative” and “take control of your own learning.” So wouldn’t it be best if students were left to learn independently of the teacher’s commands?)

Don’t be a smart alec (But isn’t it one of the aims of education to produce people who are witty and intelligent, who can think on their feet and are able to defend themselves? If that is the case, then wouldn’t it be better if students were allowed to practice these skills on the teacher?)

Always do the best that you can do (Well, that sounds like a nice little saying, but it is obviously wrong. Clearly it is not right for a person to “do the best they can” to become a thief or a liar. So this little saying gives people no good reason to do their best at school: perhaps school is a bad thing, like lying or burglary. One reason you might think school is a good thing is that if the student does well they will have a better chance of getting a good job. But that reason doesn’t work, because a person who does an average amount of work can get the same mark as a person who does a lot of work, even if they have the same natural capabilities. The marking scheme is so crude that often it can’t distinguish between those two people. So why not just do an average amount of work and leave yourself more free time to do other worthwhile things? You might say that is “shirking” or something, but isn’t it just good time management?)

Never talk while the teacher is talking (But the teacher talks while the students are talking. So why the double standard? You might say “because the teacher is giving out important information that everyone needs to hear.” But….but…well, see the next one)

Don’t disrupt other people’s learning with violence, excessive talking, etc. (But when the teacher says “you ought not to disrupt other people’s learning,” isn’t that a moral claim? And hasn’t the twentieth century taught us that moral claims are always relative, so that what is morally wrong for one person may be morally right for another person? Some African tribes think that it is morally right for young children to be forced into marriage at the age of fifteen. In New Zealand we think this practice wrong, but we tolerate it because we know that the African people have a different moral scheme to our own. Why don’t teachers take such an enlightened attitude towards their more talkative students?)

Students will be treated as adults unless they act like children. If they act like children, they will be treated like children (But if a person gets sick and goes to hospital, everyone says “just treat them normally, as if they are quite well; that way they will get better more quickly.” And if a person starts acting like a dog, it would be foolish to start treating him like a dog: if you do that, he’ll just become more and more convinced that he is a dog, so he’ll keep acting like it. If you treat him like a dog, you have made things worse, not better. And if you agree to that, you would be inconsistent if you treated people like children as soon as they started acting like children.)

Make sure you can back up your actions with good reasons (That’s a bit fishy as well. Suppose Jack thought that your idea of what counts as a “reason” is wrong. Then you would have to back up your idea of what a “reason” is. But what kind of things would you use to back it up? You would have to use “reasons,” of course; but what sort of things will count as “reasons”? You would have to use your own idea of what a “reason” is. But of course Jack will not be convinced, because you have assumed as true the very thing that you were trying to convince him about. It’s as if you were to say to Jack “The moon is made of cheese,” and then try to convince him by saying: “the moon is made of cheese; therefore the moon is yellow and has holes in it and is made from cows milk; therefore it must be made of cheese.” Which is clearly a bad argument. So noone can give any good reasons to believe that their idea of “reasons” is the right one. So every reason is as good as any other reason. So as far as reasons are concerned, any action is just as good as any other action. Isn’t it?)”

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Two Halves: Hitching Excerpts

Joe Bennett’s book A Land of Two Halves is about hitchhiking around New Zealand, and it is such a good read that one day I may even get around to reviewing it. In the mean time, here are some of Bennett’s remarks about hitchhiking, extracted from the book.

There’s a book to be written about the psychology of hitch-hiking, and this may turn out to be it, but for now let me observe only that the business is a matter of demeanour and that a large part of that demeanor is expressed in the thumb. It is possible to proffer a thumb demandingly, imploringly, jauntily, shyly, limply, apologetically or listlessly. My thumb is limp and embarrassed. (8-9)

The driver of the first car gestures that he’s turning off to the right. He probably isn’t, but that acknowledgement that I am here, that I exist and am doing what I am doing, brings a gust of what I want from this trip, a sense of being solitary, free, and somehow small. It’s a feeling I remember from my youth. I like it. (9)

And it [the feeling of being solitary etc.] comes with an abundance of random detail and the time to absorb it. (9)

Now that it’s over, the lift from Rick gives me a tingle of retrospective pleasure. I’ve no desire to meet Rick again, but I liked him and enjoyed his honesty and felt sorry for him. He also provided the sort of thing that makes hitching what it is. It let me step briefly into the mess of his life. And it did us both good. I must have been the first person he’d spoken to since the bitterness of his row that morning. Before he picked me up he must have been stewing, grinding his teeth, clenching the wheel. My presence let him unburden himself of some of that. And I relished the details vicariously. They reminded me that the world is wide and full of differences. And then I was able to step back out of that life, unwounded, uninvolved, almost untouched. (are page numbers really necessary?)

The propaganda against hitching has grown in recent times and you see fewer and fewer people doing it. But it’s not as dangerous as the propagandists make out. Never once have I been physically threatened by a driver. I’ve met nutters but they’ve been harmless nutters. And on the two occasions when I have been propositioned, both the propositioners, though big men and spectacularly ugly ones, were oblique in their propositioning, and they accepted the rebuff without demur.

Indeed my experiences of hitching have affirmed human nature far more often than they have damned it. For one thing, every lift begins with an act of generosity. And once inside the vehicle I have met infinitely more vulnerability and honesty than I have met aggression, perhaps because the fleeting nature of a lift invites intimacy. Both parties are staring ahead through the windscreen, so that words can be spoken as if to air. The best lifts are like confessionals on wheels, like psychiatric couches barrelling through the landscape. Hundreds of drivers have told me things that they have never told their partners, their parents or their children. I like all that. Indeed hitching is the only form of travel that makes the actual shifting of one’s flesh from one place to another something of interest, rather than a chore to be endured for the reward of arrival. Furthermore, the intimacy is temporary and carries none of the consequences of intimacy, which suits me just fine. Never once, anywhere, have I met any of my drivers a second time. So when Rick drives out of the main street of Geraldine he is driving out of my life for good. (no, I don't think they are)

Twenty-five years ago I got a lift from Dieppe to Rouen with a middle-aged English couple in a big Rover. The husband asked me if I was married. I said no.
‘Take my advice, son,’ he said, ‘and stay that way.’
I could think of nothing to say. I didn’t have to. The man had tapped a pent seam of his own venom and discharged it in a stream of invective against married life about traps and womanhood and money and handcuffs that took us half way to Rouen. His wife sat with a map on her lap and said nothing at all. (what a relief)

…And then, just as I was about to put my thumb out, I chose not to. The car slowed a little. It would have stopped. But I looked away and let it pass. Why? Why was simple. It was the sky and the land and the bubbling sense of little me as a speck upon it, tiny, trivial but utterly free. That’s all. Big sky, little man, the essential human comedy. As if for a moment I was suspended above myself, looking down and seeing this vain and self-preoccupied figure all alone on this big white land. That’s all. Call it perspective, if you like, call it Zen, call it a pound of parsnips and eat it with butter for all I care. It felt exhilarating.

Three backpackers are struggling along the main street against the wind. Each is toting both a backpack and a front-pack. A sniper would despair of wounding them fatally. One even carries a third bag in her hand, from which protrudes the corner of a kitchen sink. Time was when you could just push backpackers over and watch them writhe like flipped beetles. Today you have to trip them at the top of an incline so that they roll unstoppably down it in their casing of possessions. Or else you can do as I do now, and give an ironic middle-aged tut before passing by on the other side of the road.

The mist is thinning. Buildings have ghosted out of it and become solid. Over the course of an hour I watch the ironed sheet of a lake appear, shifting by imperceptible gradations from grey to black, from clack to steel, from steel to pine green. Folded mountains emerge as hints of themselves, then gather bulk. Above the sharply defined tree-line, some low vegetation, then what looks to be tussock, then bare rock and slides of scree and pockets of snow and then snow, all of it sharp in the sun. It is good to watch it happen. And there is no other form of travelling in which one would watch it happen. Hitching enforces immobility.

‘That the lion’s share of happiness is found by couples,’ wrote [the poet Philip] Larkin, sheer inaccuracy as far as I’m concerned’ – and as far as I’m concerned, too, at least when travelling. I have tried travelling in company and it has rarely worked. I once went down to France with a University friend. By the time we reached the Spanish border I thought I hated him. I didn’t. What I hated was having to compromise, to discuss, to reach decisions together, to agree on the next move. But more significantly I hated showing my timidity on the road, exposing so much of my weakness.

Philosophy: Why I Do It

Here I have put down some thoughts on what sort of philosophical content I will have on this blog. Now it is time to do what I am meant primarily to do in these introductions, which is to answer the very reasonable question of why I bother with all this antisocial and time-consuming literary and mental work, work that many people would find dull, excessively abstract, solipsistic and, at best, a noble-minded folly.

So why do I bother with philosophy? I bother for the same reason that other people bother with Lazy Boys and beachfront scenery: because it is a form of relaxation, a way of soothing the mind. The mechanism is a little different in the philosophy case than the two cases just mentioned, but the result is similar: it gives a sense of calmness and order, or relief from chaos. Some might say that it is an antidote to the frenetic pace of modern life. I do not really want to say that, partly because other people say it and partly because I am not sure that modern life is as frenetic, in relation to earlier kinds of life, as it is sometimes cracked up to be. But I do say that philosophy is an antidote to the mindlessness of modern life.

Being mindful of things, in the way that philosophy is mindful, is soothing, but it is also difficult. I don’t count this as a deterrent, at least not usually. I bother with philosophy, despite its difficulty, for the same reasons that other people bother with poetry and triathlons, despite their difficulty: because difficulty in a pursuit asks for effort from the pursuer, and because effort has two rewards: the reliable but rather thin reward that comes merely from putting a lot of honest work into something; and the less reliable but richer reward that comes from getting closer to some form of excellence. The first of these rewards does not need any further explanation. The second does need further explanation, because one might reasonably ask the question: why pursue the excellence of philosophy over other kinds of excellence? And, perhaps it is not entirely silly to ask the question: why regard the excellence of philosophy as possessing any value at all, never mind an excellence that is so great as to shove most other excellencies out of the way?

One answer is that a quick and insightful mind makes it easier to advance in the world: it gets you a job, and it helps you to do useful practical things such as haggling and persuading others to support your pet projects. I do not think that this is a very good answer. For one thing, it is not especially philosophical to do philosophy in order to secure a high-paying job (though I do think there is something to be said for “active epistemology”, which I have described very roughly somewhere in here). For another thing, philosophy (in my experience) tends to interfere destructively with many practical tasks, rather than give an extra edge to my execution of them. Some time in the sixth or seventh century BC (or thereabouts) Thales fell into a well because he was too busy looking at the stars; and ever since then philosophers have had a reputation for looking to keenly at what seems to be a long way off and too dimly at what is at their feet.

I can give a better answer by trying to describe the things I admire about people who do philosophy well. And I can do that by trying to describe briefly the nature of philosophical learning. Acquiring a facility for philosophy, I think, is like acquiring a fairly powerful microscope. It gives you access to a who new domain of objects and relations and patterns, a domain that has a richness and variety that you could not have imagined existed if you looked at things just with your naked eye.

It is a very seductive toy, this microscope. You want to keep looking further into all those strange rock-like things and those knobbly little green things, and more closely at the eccentric patterns you see just on the edge of your scope. You feel like you could discover some amazing things down there, things people have never known about before. At the same time, however, you can very easily get completely lost, and end up discovering only trivialities or boring details or things that people have already discovered, and which they have discovered by a much less tortuous route than you have. A good philosopher is enticed by the detail without being seduced by it. A good philosopher, I think, is also well aware that all of this detail is not worth observing unless it can be linked up somehow with what you can observe with the naked eye. A bad philosopher will interpret the details carelessly, and end up saying something laughable about the world of the naked eye, and all that microscopic effort will go to waste. A good philosopher keeps one eye on the lens and one eye on the window, and out of both eyes still has a good sense of perspective.

A good philosopher is also admirable for the way he or she presents the results of his or her inquiry. All that tiny detail is so complex, and so foreign to our ordinary objects of vision, that it is easy to get confused when reporting about it, and to confuse readers as well; and so philosophy, like microscopy, calls for an especially clear and careful manner of expression.

I like this manner of expression. I like its honesty and its precision and its lack of tinsel, the firmness of its syntax (all those short sentences, structured according to their logic) and the way in which it refuses to be carried away by sentiment, whether moral or aesthetic. Here, for example, is the start of the introduction to Philosophy As It Is, an anthology of philosophical exemplars.

The best introduction to philosophy is philosophy itself. This is not an original thought, but it is not common for it to be taken as literally and as seriously as we have taken it in bringing together this volume of essays and introductions.

Good philosophy is rigorous, and has been since Socrates and before. The quality of rigorousness is not preserved in dilution. Reflection on philosophy (by which we mean attempts to introduce it or describe it or survey it or explain its nature), as distinct from attempts to do it, may be more or less instructive. Some books on philosophy, as contrasted with books of philosophy, are excellent. At its best, however, this sort of thing still lacks an its essential quality of its subject matter….

This sort of writing is poetry to me. Look at that introductory statement: it is clean as you can get, and uncompromising. Look at the honesty of the first clause in the second sentence, and the nice clarification that follows from it, and look too at those words “seriously” and “literally”, each doing their own job and doing it without fuss. Look at that italicization, true as a well-timed punch. Look too at the next sentence. Just look at that sentence: “The quality of rigorousness is not preserved in dilution.” What economy! What clarity! What a deft little metaphor, weighted precisely so as to express the point but not to strain it! It is comparable, for its expressive qualities, to something like this:

And nothing ‘gainst time’s scythe can make defense,
Save breath to brave him when he takes thee hence.

And then there is the explication in brackets, extending meaning but not excessively so, and the perfectly simple expression, in a neat parallelism, of a distinction that could one could so easily labour over in two or three sentences, and the measured tone of the whole, a tone that is not at all deliberately cultivated, but is a consequence of the main purpose of the prose, which is to present the truth clearly and persuasively. It is informal when it can be (“that sort of thing”), and it is does not tangle itself up with verbose diction; but at important moments in a sentence or a paragraph, when clarity and persuasiveness are most needed, it tightens up its language and fixes meaning in place. I could go on.

In this brief survey of the attractions of philosophy, I should also make mention of two other important qualities of the discipline: its necessity, and its generality. In general, philosophical truths bear more resemblance to the truths of mathematics than the truths of history: the sense in which philosophical truths could have failed to be truths is a very weak sense. Just what is meant by necessity, and what kind of necessity obtains in the case of philosophical truths, is of course a terribly large question, and I do not know much about the question, let alone the answer. All I want to say here is that philosophical truths have a kind of security about them that does not obtain in some other disciplines (like History), and that this security is attractive.

By the generality of philosophy I mean its applicability to a wide range of problems and interests. My metaphor of the microscope tends to obscure this point, suggesting as it does that philosophy is concerned mainly with the minutiae of life, and perhaps that it is only concerned with one or two sub-sections of life. On the contrary, philosophy is one of the broadest intellectual disciplines, and its subject matter stretches right across from aesthetics to mathematics, taking in History and Education and Science and Politics, and of course Ethics, along the way. Just what sort of priority enjoys over the other standard intellectual disciplines is another large question. I may have a go at answering this at some later date; for now it is enough to say that philosophy can make substantive contributions to our understanding of all of the disciplines just mentioned, and that its method is also well-adapted to solving, or at least assuaging, some of the problems of life.

And perhaps this last point is the most important point. What makes philosophy such an attractive pastime is that it is such a natural pastime, one that arises almost inadvertently when one begins trying to ask and answer questions about the world and the people in it. Everyone, I think, feels an urge to ask and answer such questions. And if one is going to do philosophy naturally, one might as well do it properly.

Philosophy: What I Do With It

Over here you can find a pretty oblique answer to the questions: what kind of thing does this blog mean by “philosophy”? and why do I think that it worth blogging about? The linked post is really an essay on Plato, and it is quite long. Hopefully the thoughts on this and the next post give a more direct and readable answer to the questions just stated, and function better as an introduction to the philosophical content of this blog.

I do not have the will or the ability to live a life of philosophy, but I do wish to life a philosophical life. The style, standard, frequency, duration and subject matter of my attempts to write philosophy, are hard for me to describe in advance: indeed, part of my motivation for making these attempts is that they might reveal to me just what that style, standard etc. really is. But the first sentence in this introduction will probably turn out to be a good guide to the nature of that philosophical content of this blog.

By that first sentence I mean that I do not have the time, enthusiasm, or the natural ability to pursue the discipline of philosophy as fully as one does so when one becomes an academic philosopher or a popular philosopher or any other person who makes a living out of writing philosophy. I am full of admiration for the small number of people who do possess the time etc. to make such a living, but I am one of the large number of people who do not. Nevertheless, I am also one of the people (who are also pretty large in number, I suspect) who wish to engage in philosophical reflection for its own sake and who (more characteristically) wish to engage philosophically with the non-philosophical activities that fill up the large part of the life of this group. Voting, writing, enjoying literature, working, socialising, and (to some extent) falling in love: all of these activities can, I think, be informed and enriched by philosophy, and I am one of those people who would like the activities of everyday life to be magnified in this way by reasoned contemplation.

For me, and perhaps for others, this approach to philosophy has two main consequences for the philosophy thus generated. Firstly, the subject matter of that philosophy is unlikely to coincide with that of standard philosophy (by which I mean the work done in orthodox Western philosophy departments). Unless the urge to do philosophy for its own sake is especially strong, then one is likely to miss out some of the more abstract and technical topics; hence this blog is unlikely to contain any thoughts on high-level metaphysics or on formal logic. And I will make unusual additions to the standard philosophical subject matter, as well as unusual exclusions. For example, over here I have placed under the label of “philosophy” a piece of writing that deals mainly with travel. As far as I know, this is a pioneering effort in the philosophy of travel; I doubt, however, that any professors of philosophy would, upon reading a piece like that one, make excited moves to add their own contributions to this ground-breaking field of study. Travel is just not the sort of thing that you worry about as a philosopher. As a person who lives, however, you are likely to travel at some point or another, and if you are going to worry about it you might as well do so philosophically. Of course, I do not want to include just anything under the label of philosophy. I do not want to disgrace the label on my blog, or render it meaningless through inappropriate use. But I do want to apply the philosophical method to a wider range of topics than is usual.

The second major feature of my approach to philosophy is that it will probably lead to a greater than usual amount of reflection upon the nature of the relationship between philosophy and non-philosophical activities such as work, writing, etc. It is an orthodox philosophical urge, I think, this urge to reflect upon one’s own forms of reflection; because my forms of reflection are unorthodox, however, my reflections upon those forms are likely to be unorthodox as well, in their subject matter and also in their methods of inquiry and presentation. So, for example, the piece on travel here is an attempt to illuminate the relationship between philosophy and travel. And probably I will write one or two more pieces in the same spirit: the spirit of questioning and clarifying the connection between philosophical reflection and everything else, where “everything else” means practical activities like work and play, but also non-philosophical forms of reflection, such as literature. Worse, I will probably include under the “philosophy” label even those bits of writing that have only a thematic, and not a methodological, connection with standard philosophy: on this blog, a poem about philosophy counts as “philosophy.” This may seem like a failure to take philosophy seriously. However, I prefer to think of it as something quite different, as a consequence of a serious desire to work out what philosophy amounts to, and hence a desire to deploy any medium I can in the attempt.

My peculiar approach to philosophy, and also some interests that are independent of philosophy, lead me to take a particular interest in two branches of the discipline: philosophy of literature, and philosophy of education. I enjoy writing creatively, and I have aspirations to teach, and these interests would exist even if I did not know philosophy from scatology. But my approach to these branches of philosophy will probably be guided by my approach to philosophy as a whole. So, firstly, I am especially interested in the relation between literature and philosophy; if pressed to give details, I would say that I am interested in the extent to which literature, novels in particular, can be a legitimate source of ethical insight. Another aspect of the philosophy of literature that I might pursue is that of metaphor; but that aspect does not have quite so intimate a connexion with my desire to study the relationship between philosophy and non-philosophy, as the ethical-epistemic aspect.

In the field of education, I am interested in questions surrounding how philosophy might be incoorporated into school education. One such question is what sort of philosophy should be taught in schools, if philosophy does find its way into that domain. One answer, which I favour, is that it should be that kind of philosophy that enables students to live a philosophical life, though not necessarily a life of philosophy. Hopefully my peculiar approach to philosophy on this blog will help me to clarify this notion of a “philosophical life,” and to discover how it might be compared and contrasted with a “life of philosophy.”

That, then, is a rough account of what I expect to post in the way of philosophy. It is a rough account because I do not really know what will be the standard, style, frequency, duration and subject matter of my attempts to do philosophy on this blog. The only certain thing is that, with time, I will know.


Here is a poem from long ago.

Shadows are loyal as the sun
And as lone: low slabs, the chance
Uncoloured quiet of things, down-cast.

Lengthening as the day declines,
Short as it looms, shy
At noon and blind at night,

Fat behind hills, and fast
Fluttering over footpaths,
Fleeing endlessly under cars,

Calm, they come and leave
As objects do. They move
As movement does. To lose,

To lose them leaves the desert or the night.
To choose them dims the bright,
Leaving shade, the dark that proves the light.

Travel and Literature

Here you can find a long, loping discussion of the relationship between travel and philosophy, and in that discussion you can also find some thoughts about why I think travel is a worthwhile thing to do. In this post I want to go for a short sprint through some thoughts about travel and literature. My hope is that this post will be more readable than my previous one, and convey the spirit of my travel writings more clearly; though I can’t promise that this one will be as detailed or as earnest as the former.

For a person who wants to write descriptively about people and the world, in plays or in novels or in poems, travel looks like a very worthwhile thing indeed. What writers thrive upon, one might think, are new and interesting forms of life: people who are peculiar enough and vivid enough to be turned into characters; events that are dramatic and instructive enough to be turned into stories; objects and actions that have the bulk and breadth to make it as symbols; cultures and landscapes that are rich enough, full enough with the strange and the engaging, to function as settings. And one consequence of travel, one might think, is that a person is brought into contact with all these new and interesting forms of life. Hence travel looks to be just the sort of thing that a writer would want to do.

The subjunctive padding in the last paragraph is placed there to protect me from people who will immediately point out that a number of great writers have written great books about their own town or their own city, apparently without doing any travelling at all. Look at Dickens, with his London masterpieces; at Jane Austen, with her beautifully turned engravings of a highly localised culture; if you are a New Zealander, look at Frank Sargeson sitting in his shack on Takapuna beach, almost as well-hidden as Descartes in his oven. And looking at these books and these writers, what can one do with the theory outlined in the above paragraph, except paint it purple and call it a turnip?

Well, I think one can do a bit more than that. To be sure, the theory is defective. But it also has its merits, and even its defects can shed a little bit of light on the nature of travel and of writing. I will leave the merits to last. In the meantime, let me do what the previous paragraph invites me to do, and explain why the theory is defective, which means identifying its faulty assumptions. It assumes, firstly, that new and interesting forms of life can only be found through travelling. This is false, since they can be found in the mind as well, in the perpetual adventure of the imagination. Imagination does not render travel redundant, but it does make it less urgently necessary. The theory assumes, secondly, that the key to good novels, and the key to good novel-writing, is to uncover new and interesting forms of life. This is false with regards to good novels, since we often value novels for their ability to uncover something that is new and interesting about our ordinary, local forms of life. And it is false with regards to good novel-writing, since this uncovering of the new in the familiar requires a certain kind of sensitivity to the world; and this sensitivity is best cultivated, one might think, not by making it easy for oneself and letting oneself be assaulted by exotic species of nature and of humankind, but by making it hard for oneself, and looking with care and discipline for signs of the exotic in the quiet habits of ordinary life.

Now I see that this subjunctive buffer has again crept in between my prose and my beliefs. But I think that, in the final sentence of the previous paragraph, the buffer is justified. For I do not think that it is quite correct to say that, in order to cultivate the required sensitivity, it is best to make things hard for oneself. When we start to cultivate an ear for French, we make things easier for ourselves. We get people to speak slowly, so we can learn to catch the rhythms and the patterns in their speech that we must catch in their normal, skittering conversation, if we are to understand them properly. Likewise, we start writing by describing things that present their distinctive characteristics very clearly to the ear and eye and touch: we write about wonderfully high mountains and exotic plants and eccentric people. And, once we have caught the rhythm of the world in this way, when it is played very loudly to us, we can more easily catch that rhythm when it is played more softly; and when we have followed it into the soft sounds of ordinary life, so soft that they are inaudible to most people, then we can say that we have understood properly the language of the world.

Furthermore, this way of proceeding, from the easy to the hard, is likely to stimulate the will just as well as it stimulates the other faculties. We are less likely to become disheartened by a discipline if we do not find things horribly difficult at first; and we are more likely to be excited by a discipline if it brings us into contact with things that are, on the surface at least, much more new and interesting than our ordinary life.

And, to finish things off, I should observe that a knowledge of the local cannot be very easily attained without some knowledge of the foreign. For, a knowledge of the local does not really deserve that name unless it involves some knowledge of how the local is distinctive from everything else; and that knowledge is surely easier to come by when one has some knowledge of everything else. I cannot say that I know myself if I know only that I have ten fingers and toes, one heart, and any other attribute of body or mind that applies equally well to all other human beings as it does to myself; and a good way to extend my knowledge beyond this anonymous state, is to learn something more about other people. And as with knowledge of self, so with knowledge of country and of town and of family.

This point about self-knowledge is less apt to my travel writings than are the points about starting easy and about getting excited. Most of my travel writings are cluttered, excited, and somewhat lavish descriptions of the places and people that I come across as I go along my way. At least, this is how my travel writings have gone up to this point, and that seems like a good reason to assume that they will carry on in the same fashion. I could go on to discuss my reasons for choosing to report on my travels at all, and my reasons for choosing the written word as my medium of reportage (rather than photography, say) but this time I will spare the reader any more ponderousness, and invite them, if they are suitably inclined, to read the things I write about my travels.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Travel and Philosophy

A philosophy of pure thought is for an existing individual a chimera, if the truth that is sought is something to exist in. To exist under the guidance of pure thought is like travelling in Denmark with the help of a small map of Europe, on which Denmark shows no larger than a steel pen-point - Aye, it is still more impossible. --Kirkegaard.

PHAEDRUS: …you don't go away from the city out over the border, and it seems to me you don't go outside the walls at all.

SOCRATES: Forgive me, my dear friend. You see, I am fond of learning. Now the country places and the trees won't teach me anything, and the people in the city do. But you seem to have found the charm to bring me out. For as people lead hungry animals by shaking in front of them a branch of leaves or some fruit, just so, I think, you, by holding before me discourses in books, will lead me all over Attica and wherever else you please. --Phaedrus

I’m not sure that travel broadens the mind. But it does underline the narrowness of experience. -–Joe Bennett

To a philosopher, travel is unnecessary. To a philosopher, travel is also insufficient; and it may also be undesirable. Nevertheless, there is practice (I will it “active philosophy”) which resembles philosophy, and which is considerably advanced by the practice of travel. In the following I will discuss the relationship between philosophy and travel, and between standard philosophy and “active philosophy”, and in doing so I hope to shed a bit of light on all of those practices, and especially upon my reasons for doing a bit a travel here and there. Unfortunately, I will also find it necessary to rush across great areas of philosophical interest with a very hasty and weak sort of light. Hopefully, however, the overall effect is that I do more to illuminate these topics than to darken them.

The independence of philosophy and travel, as described in the first two sentences of this essay, seems to me to be true historically. My small knowledge of the history of philosophy suggests to me that philosophers qua philosophers feel no great need to stick their thumb out, so to speak, and wait to be driven over the horizon. One thinks of Plato, who seems disinclined to leave the city, at least in the above quote, unless he is tempted out of there by learned discourses. One thinks of Kant, shut up in Konigsberg; and of Descartes, huddled in his oven to write his Meditations. All of them embody a view of the philosopher as above or outside the world of travellers, or otherwise detached from it.

Descartes does offer a counterpoint to the general rule, because he seems to have benefited philosophically from his journeyings through Europe. But this is a weak counterpoint, because Descartes benefited from observing the thinking habits of other people, which is only one part of what travellers usually do; because Descartes observations on his travels surely played only a small part in his writings, acting as an initial stimulus to those writings rather than a thorough-going determinant of their nature; and because in the present-day world the travels of Descartes’ kind are redundant, since the kind of thoughts that Descartes found instructive to observe on his travels can probably be found today in any well-stocked library or well-stocked philosophy department.

Wittgenstein offers another weak counterpoint. He found it useful to travel to Norway and Ireland to produce some of his work. But one would not want to say that these movements through space had much effect on his current of thought. Those movements probably ensured that the current ran as swiftly and smoothly as possible, but I doubt that they had any effect on the direction in which it ran. I expect they were less like the movements of an archeologist, who goes to Africa to study the rocks there; and more like the movements of a mathematician, who goes from one room to another because he is sickened or distracted by the noise in the first room. So philosophers do travel for their philosophy, but they do so to find more stimulating colleagues or a more salubrious environment, and not much more.

Of course, one can make the same point without hiking through the pages of history. What can we learn about the nature of Substance, or the status of the a priori, by spending a week in Southern France? What can we learn about the is-ought gap in the Himalayas, that we cannot learn at a desk? What does the scenery of New Zealand have to tell us about Gettier cases and the corroboration of scientific theories? Very little, except in the sense of offering us a comfortable setting in which to think (and perhaps not even that). Just why this is the case is of course a matter for philosophical discussion, and an empiricist is likely to give a different answer than a Platonist, and both of those answers will probably differ from this one. Here it is enough to note that it is the case: philosophers don’t need to travel, and even if they did need to it would not be much help.

It may even be a hindrance. That is, a philosopher might regard travel as undesirable, especially if she is a Platonist. In that case she would ask: what would Plato have thought of the modern traveller, leaving home for the sake of spectacle and sensual enrichment, for craggy peaks and clear lakes and lying-back-in-the-sun-drinking-cocktails: passive, fat, delighting in pseudo-indigenous pageantry, travelling by pamphlet, facing the world through shaded glass. And she would answer in the obvious way. In answering that way she would probably point me towards one of the problems with talking generally about the activity of travel. For of course not all travellers resemble the person just described, and the more well-informed or adventurous or long-term traveller probably has a different relation with philosophy than all the other sorts of travellers. To save time, however, I won’t bother differentiating different kinds of travellers, and just use “traveller” to refer to someone who sits in between the tiki-tourist and the earnest cultural adventurer.

Despite all of the above, there is of course considerable value in travel, and I do think that some of that value is of a roughly philosophical kind. By this I mean that there is an activity, a domain of thought and action, that is similar but not identical to philosophy, and which is advanced by travel, and is perhaps advanced to its fullest extent only through travel of some kind or another. For want of a better label, I will call this domain “active philosophy.” By contrast, “standard philosophy” is my label for the academic philosophy practiced in orthodox Western university departments). I propose that for each of the main branches of standard philosophy, there is a corresponding branch of active philosophy; and that although the correspondence is pretty rough, it would be misleading to ignore it.

One main branch of philosophy is epistemology. As mentioned above, for an epistemologist there is not much to gain by travelling the world. But for a person who is interested in acquiring knowledge of a practical kind quickly and independently and reliably, it is surely quite a good idea to spend a few months making one’s way about the world, especially about the more challenging parts of the world. Planning, haggling, negotiating, deciding here and now what to do here and now: all of these activities call forth the thinking faculty, and all of them are called forth by travel. Travel cultivates the faculty of practical awareness, of being alert to things in the immediate vicinity, of being alive to the world. This faculty has little to do with epistemology as usually practiced, in subject matter or in method, and a person who is competent at active epistemology is unlikely, by virtue of that competence, to be good at real epistemology. Nevertheless, epistemology is reflection upon knowledge; and one who has mastered this the practical faculty just described, has mastered one kind of knowledge. (Even this is a pretty weak connection. Fortunately, however, it is the weakest of the three that I will discuss)

And what about metaphysics? Do travellers gain a kind of awareness that corresponds to the kind of awareness that a metaphysician is looking for? I think they do gain such an awareness, though again the correspondence with scholarly metaphysics is loose. Scholarly metaphysics, I am told, is the study of the “fundamental nature of reality.” And although the “reality” to the traveller investigates is a bit different to that which the metaphysician investigates, I do think that the former, by virtue of their travel, achieves a kind of ontological insight. It is a less grand sort of insight than that phrase suggests, but it is insight nonetheless. It is insight concerning what human lives basically consists in. One stays at home, and becomes preoccupied by a particular set of problems and interests, whether they are personal or financial or philosophical. One goes abroad, and discovers that a lot of other people are preoccupied by problems and concerns of a completely different kind. One already knows this when one is at home, in a vague and impersonal sort of way: one only needs to look at a good atlas to see, say, that 57% or the world work in factories and the rest do not; or that 54% of the worlds population practices a religion. But one knows this sort of thing in a different way, a more intense and personal way, when one goes abroad. I won’t try to say what this different kind of “knowing” consists in, and how it differs from ordinary knowing; I’ll just say that, in my current opinion, it is an advance upon the good-atlas way of knowing about the basic constituents of human life.

The insight I have just mentioned can come in two forms, I think: the objective and the subjective. Objectively, one discovers something about what the majority of people do in their lives. Objectively, one also get a more precise awareness of how diverse the world is, how much those different ways of living vary; often, I suspect, the traveler, having gotten this more precise awareness, places the emphasis upon the difference. “I was reminded that the world is wide and full of difference,” writes Joe Bennett of one of his hitch-hiking experiences. And in being so reminded, he has gained renewed awareness of a state of affairs that may, without too much strain, be regarded as “fundamental” to the reality of the human world.

Subjectively, the traveler discovers something about which way of living is best suited to himself. One could think of this as an ontological discovery, since it concerns fundamentals: it concerns the basic units of one’s life around which the rest will be organized, whether the basic units are Work and Family, or Writing, or Other People. But probably it is better to think of it as an ethical discovery, since it concerns what one values most highly. And as an ethical discovery, it belongs in the next paragraph.

Ethics is concerned with evaluating competing courses of action. Travel both causes a person to discover courses of action that were previously hidden from him, and to discover new reasons for favoring courses of action that were previously unappealing to him. One discovers new ways of living, as mentioned above; one also discovers new manners of being, new ways of holding oneself or behaving oneself or new ways of interacting with others. One discovers personality types that had never occurred to one as possibilities (not that one would have denied their possibility, if someone had asked about them; just that one did not have the experience or the imagination to conceive of them, and to ask the question of oneself). Perhaps one has always tended to favour introverts, not having known any appealing extroverts; and then one travels, and begins to see how certain shades of extroversion, which were previously clouded in one’s mind by the unattractive shades of this characteristic, are actually attractive. Perhaps one has always thought of religious people as rather foolish and confused, and their claims to spiritual superiority as just so much folly and confusion; and then one travels, and discovers that certain people do possess a kind of calmness, an honest, well-grounded, desirable sort of calm, that seems to be a result of their religious sort of life. Discoveries of this kind are certainly aided by travel. They may also be aided by detached philosophical reflection, but I do not think that they can be fully discovered solely in that abstract manner, since they have a large empirical component to them: to know them, we need to know something about our responses to certain kinds of person or activity. These discoveries are beyond abstract thought in a way that resembles the way in which our attitude towards vanilla icecream is beyond abstract thought.

The above paragraph is concerned with ethics insofar as ethics is a matter of deciding between competing courses of action. But ethics might also be a matter of acting in accordance with those decisions. I say “might” because success in ethics, in the scholarly version of that discipline, is by-and-large independent of a persons success in acting ethically; and I avoid saying “is not” because it is plausible to think that this independence of thought and action represents a failure to be properly philosophical. That debate is irrelevant to the claim I want to make here, however, which is that active ethics (by which I mean the practice of acting in accordance with ethically sound beliefs) is a practice which is, firstly, closely related to scholarly ethics, and secondly, that is advanced by travel. I take it that the first claim is obvious (though precisely what is the nature of close relation between ethics and active ethics, is not so obvious. I will discuss that relation a bit later on). The second claim is supported by the fact that travel can furnish us with practical skills that enable us to act ethically. One such practical skill is intellectual, and has already been discussed (under the label of active epistemology). Other practical skills are social. Through travel we learn to communicate with other people, tolerate their eccentricities, appreciate their virtues, and generally to be agreeable to them; and without these skills, our chances of living a fully moral life are lessened. (Though I am not sure just what sort of moral negligence would be involved, if someone failed to cultivate these skills. Are we morally obliged to be charismatic? I think I’ll discuss that kind of question in another post.) And practical skills, of the kind that are developed through travel, can influence our ability to live well in other ways. If we want to devote our lives to some sort grand, ethically driven program of reform, whether in politics or in education or in science, usually we will need a greater amount than usual of eloquence and charm and facility with people; and surely travel can help to cultivate these qualities as well.

At this point I should acknowledge that nothing I have said here is new or surprising. Indeed, the practices that I have grouped under the label of “active philosophy” are so well-known as to be easily summarized by cliches. What I mean by a facility in “active epistemology” is really just what people mean when they talk about being able to “think on one’s feet” and “keep your wits about you.” And what I mean by a facility for “active metaphysics” is really just what people mean by “having a sense of perspective,” or a “strong sense of identity.” Perhaps “active ethics” is less easily summarised in commonplace terms. But even there one does not have to grope around for too long to find an everyday approximation to my newly-invented term: being an active ethicist is more-or-less the same as being a good bloke. Nevertheless, I think there is some genuine value in doing what I have just done: there is value, that is, in trying to clarify and re-describe concepts that we usually treat, lighthandedly, as cliches.

There is also value in trying to describe the relationship between standard philosophy and the main elements, just described, of active philosophy. One could interpret Kirkegaard as trying, in the quote given at the start of this post, to give such a description. This might be a faulty interpretation: it may be wrong, for example, to think that Kirkegaard’s “philosophy to exist in” is my “active philosophy.” My purposes here are not to accurately describe the thoughts of a past philosopher, however, so any misreading of Kirkegaard I commit is beside the point. The point of presenting Kirkegaard’s metaphor is to suggest one way of describing the relation between active philosophy and standard philosophy. The suggestion is that standard philosophy is useless when it comes to succeeding at active philosophy; and the reason for this is the coarseness of the information that standard philosophy gives us about the best way to think and to behave in the world. Standard philosophy is good for certain kinds of large-scale navigation, perhaps, but it is useless in any practical situation.

It would be nice if I could now go on to give a detailed, reasoned account of my attitude towards this view. However, I cannot do that. For one thing, the question of how active philosophy stands in relation to standard philosophy is complicated by the vagueness with which both of those relata are defined, and the fact that the relation may vary over the different branches of each. For another thing, the question about the relation between these two kinds of activity is one version of the question: what is the relation between philosophy and life? And that is the sort of question that you answer over a lifetime, not over a few paragraphs.

The best I can do here is to say that I disagree with Kirkegaard’s view, and to discuss very briefly what thoughts motivate this disagreement. For what it is worth, I propose that Kirkegaard’s metaphor can be improved by just a little tweaking: by replacing the map of Europe with a large-scale map of Denmark; and adding in a particular sort of map to represent the kind of guidance that is given by active philosophy: that particular sort of map is, I think, a map of the natural terrain of Denmark, a topological map perhaps. This is an improvement on Kirkegaard’s view because it does justice to the guiding role that standard philosophy can play for active philosophy; and because it recognizes that the two kinds of philosophy really are of different kinds. I will discuss these points a bit more in the paragraphs below.

The first point that standard philosophy can play a “guiding role” in active philosophy. By “guiding role” I mean the role of giving course-grained but widely applicable recommendations about how a person should pursue their active philosophy. Standard philosophy can play such a guiding role, I think, at least in relation to some of the branches of active philosophy. In ethics, for example, our actions can be guided in an obvious way by our philosophizing: by philosophizing, we reach conclusion about how to act, and then act in accordance with those conclusions. And this guiding influence is not just present in this or that region of active philosophy. Rather, it is present in all regions: we are guided by our philosophising (at least potentially) in our long-term projects, our short-term projects, our social actions, out political and our intellectual actions. This is not to say, of course, that standard philosophy is omniscient, that it leaves no room for “play,” no extra work for active philosophy to do. Its influence is general, but it is also course-grained: our philosophising may give us the concepts of “introversion” and “extraversion”, and it may help us to recognize and evaluate the lessons that active philosophy puts forward for us; but it is not in the power of philosophising to encounter those lessons, to come across the attractive extrovert or to live for a while with the inspiring devotee of religion (it may be in the power of the imagination to come across these things; but that is another story).

My second point is that the content of active philosophy differs from that of standard philosophy. The former is made up primarily of a set of clearly articulated beliefs and inferences. Although it refers to the world of action and of things, the procedures of standard philosophy take place entirely in the minds of the philosopher, in such a way, ideally, that its products can be entirely represented in words. Active philosophy, on the other hand, is made up primarily of a set of practical skills: the procedures by which active philosophers pursue their discipline, and the products that come out at the end of those procedures, are actions and sensations rather than thoughts and sentences. One becomes a good active epistemologist mainly by getting practice at “thinking on the spot”; and one shows that one is a good active epistemologist by putting this practice to use in real situations. Similarly with the practical skills that are the domain of the active ethicist. Even active metaphysics, as mentioned above, produces a kind of knowledge that is (in some way that I have not clarified) “different” from ordinary philosophical knowledge. This difference in kind, between active philosophy and standard philosophy, invites us to tweak Kirkegaard’s image in the way I have suggested above: to imagine standard philosophy as a large-scale map of Denmark’s roads, and active philosophy as a map of the country’s natural landscape. The former is one kind of thing, a system of objects whose natures and interconnections can be clearly delineated; and the latter is another kind of thing, a less orderly but more detailed kind of thing than the former. And if we want to go widely and safely through the terrain of life, we need maps of both kinds.

In summary, I have described an activity called “active philosophy.” This activity can be described in correspondence with the activity referred to here as “standard philosophy”; and I have outlined the correspondence as it applies to the three main branches of philosophy. My main purpose here was to say that the orthodox philosopher cannot gain any real benefit from travel; but that the active philosopher can do so. My secondary purpose was to try to say something sensible (though of course not comprehensive) the relation between active and standard philosophy, and I used Kirkegaard’s metaphor to help me in this attempt.

Now, these two purposes have taken up far more time and far more space than I intended them to take up, and as a result my overarching purpose may have been lost: that is, I may not have given a very clear account of my interest in travel, and my reasons for writing about it. (For one thing, I have not given an exhaustive account of my reasons for travelling: I have only given an account of why a philosophically inclined person might have reasons to travel). I have three excuses for my wobbliness of subject-matter and long-windedness of expression. First, there’s some value discussing the relation between travel and philosophy, and about active philosophy, even if this discussion leads one into one or two sidetracks. Second, I do intend to write a shorter and more palatable post about my travels, which I hope will fill in the gaps that are left by this one. (For example, it will give an account of why a literature-inclined person might have reasons to travel.) Thirdly, I did not force you to read this (but thank-you very much if you have, and I wait enthusiastically for your comments, however minor they might be).

Cats (and Mountains)

This poem is to celebrate the first comment on this blog. The connexion between the poem and the comment is loose, but perceptible.

A cat is always a cat.
Every moment a pose,
Every movement its own,
Lithe, clean, unclothed.

A cat is always alone.
It is unbothered by this.
It is its own centre,
Unclaimed and comfortably lost,

So there is a stillness
Peculiar to cats: a steady,
A steadying sway,
That starts in their eyes.

There is a kind of silence, too,
Unique in a cat. It does not
Make noise, but brings out
The noises in other things,

And he wanders through
Wanders round and through,
Through a room, unstilling things,
A patch of wandering gravity.

He does not speak. His mouth,
His inside-out triangle,
Is closed. His tail moves.
It moves slowly, making strange smiles.

Signpost 2.1

It strikes me that Signpost 2, as it stands, does not do what Signpost 2 set out to do, which is to give a thorough summary of the current state of my blogging. Here are two necessary additions.

First, visitors. Clearly my blog is not sagging with comments, and unless there are hundreds of avid but deeply shy readers out there, it follows that my blog is not overflowing with readers. I said at the start that I hoped to be able to justify the continued existence of this blog irrespective of the size of its readership. This remains true, but it is also true that a few more readers would be a pleasant addition. I realise now that I have been thinking of a new blog as if it is a new shop, and with a shop you can be guaranteed a certain amount of custom just be being physically placed in an area with people in it. But of course a new blog is more like a new phone-number, or any other new site in the electronic world. In the electronic world you cannot attract people through sheer physical proximity because physical proximity has no meaning in that world.

From now on I hope to attract readers through electronic proximity, by commenting, linking, etc. I should also update my blogroll, which at the moment stands as an insult to all the blogs that I read and consider as worthwhile but which are not Defect Perfection.

I should mention, however, that this blog has received more than zero comments. The first comment came from a person called Scarlet PervyGirl, and here is a poem to celebrate the occasion.

Second, travel. Here and here I have posted introductions to my travel writing in general. But I should also say where I am travelling at the moment. I am travelling around New Zealand, a country that swirls around the ankles of the globe and is generally regarded, by those who know, as an all-right place to travel. I travel by thumb and I sleep in Backpacker hostels (these hostels, by the way, are of quite a high standard in New Zealand, and almost match the method of hitch-hiking for friendliness, comprehensiveness, and ease of use). Here is a map of New Zealand. Here are the places I have visited and written about:

Kaikoura (on the way from Christchurch to Wellington)
Wellington (and again. The capital city, located at the foot of the North Island)
Paraparaumu Beach (on the West Coast of the North Island)
Otaki Gorge (inland from Paraparaumu beach)
Wanganui (on the Western armpit of the island)
Mt. Taranaki (on the rounded piece of land that juts out of the mainland half-way up the west coast of the North Island)
Tongariro National Park (and again. In the middle of the North Island, just below the big lake)

I hope to update this list as I go along.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Signpost 2

It is over a month since I started this blog and it is time for another signpost. So far, progress has been pleasing in some areas, less pleasing in others. I have written quite a bit of stuff about my travels, and have written one or two introductions to the different kinds of material that I intend to put in this blog. However, I have not written as many introductions as I would have liked (Reviews, Travel, Diablog, Borax and History are still ungrounded by any introductory foundation); I have not written much Philosophy at all (despite having a few draft notions and one or two Good Starts On Paper, my blog writings in this area are, at the moment, a tapestry of loose ends); and I have not yet finished that thing I started about a month ago, and which I called, pompously and optimistically, “Education as an Ideal: Part I” (as if it was the first installment of a comprehensive ten-part series, to be published, perhaps, in three leather-bound volumes).

Where I have neglected some topics, this neglect is due partly to a lack of time and partly to a lack of interest. One thing that I have discovered in the last few months, and which I will no doubt discover more keenly in the next few years, is that it is quite hard for a person to sustain a habit of substantial intellectual reflection and imaginative activity, if he or she is not fortunate enough to have made that habit into a job or a subject of full-time study. Jotting down one or two Philosophical thoughts (for example) a day, and discoursing at length on the subject once or twice a week, might not actually be easy for a person doing Philosophy at University, say. But I expect that it is easier, more natural, for such a person to maintain such a habit, than a person who spends their day at an accounting firm, or doing mathematics. And even people who spends their day travelling, if they want to do the things that travellers do, has to make a big effort of the mind and the will, if they also want to do some of the things that philosophers do. Travelling is a full-time job, though an unusually pleasant one. If you’re tramping, for example, you get up at 7am and spend the morning eating and preparing your pack; walk until 2 or 3pm; unpack, prepare a meal, lie down, make yourself agreeable to your hut companions, think about preparing another meal; make yourself more agreeable to your hut companions; eat your meal. At the end of it all there may be enough time to jot down a few thoughts on the people and the scenery, as I have been doing. But there’s not much time left for other forays of the mind; and not much energy left either (in my experience, physical exercise comes very easily after a period of wearying mental work; but I don’t think it works so well the other way around. Physical fatigue seems to seep into the mind in a way that mental fatigue does not seep into the body. Perhaps, then, it would be a good idea to do any mental work early in the day).

As I say, neglect of those other forays of the mind is also due to lack of interest. And to explain myself here I am going to enter into a little semi-philosophical discussion of these things we call Interests.

I am frequently surprised and alarmed by the extent to which my level of interest in this or that activity correlates with seemingly unsubstantial factors ie. factors that should not, from a rational standpoint, have much effect upon my evaluation of the activity which engages my attention. Such a factor, for example, is the level of involvement in the activity: almost without fail, my evaluation of the worth of the activity X alters in direct proportion to the amount of time I spend engaged in that activity. Now that I have written that down, it strikes me as a psychologically natural pattern of behaviour, and not something to be alarmed about. Our interest in a novel increases the more time we spend with its scenery and its characters, the more richly it congeals around us; and our interest in the novel declines when we have spent time away from it, when the places and people in it are scattered and half-hidden and do not cohere properly. And if the interests of humans work in this way in novels, it is unsurprising if they work this way in life.

Nevertheless, it would indeed be alarming if this rule both held all the time, and held for one’s intellectual evaluation of a novel as well as one’s psychological interest in the novel. This would be alarming because one’s evaluation of a novel would then be constantly and easily changed. Such re-evaluations, in small amounts, may not be a cause for alarm: human fallibility means that our first judgement, or even our hundredth judgement, may be in need of refinement. But if one’s re-evaluations occur at such a rate, as they could occur if evaluation of novel X varies proportionately to time-recently-spent with novel X; then there is indeed cause for alarm. There is cause (I suppose) to doubt the validity of any of those evaluations, for the reason (I suppose) that each one is highly unstable.

(Now I see, belatedly, that one might arrive at this conclusion by a much shorter route, by making the non-daring assumption that the correlation here indicates a dominant cause ie. if we assume that the dominant determining factor of one’s evaluation of X is time-recently-spent reading X. Now, clearly this factor should not be dominant. If it is dominant, then one’s evaluation will neglect factors that should be highly influential, such as the quality of the characterisation in the book and the fluidity of the prose.)

And so it goes with activities in life. There is indeed cause for alarm if my evaluation of activity X is highly unstable, and it will be highly unstable if that evaluation correlates with time-recently-spent engaged in activity X. This state of affairs is alarming because I want to settle on an activity that is somehow best for me, and to make sure I settle on the right activity I need to evaluate the candidate activities in a sound way.

Perhaps I can find my way out of this problem with the help of the distinction made earlier, between an intellectual evaluation and a psychological interest. Perhaps it is only the latter that behaves in the alarming, unstable way, while the former is stable and unalarming. So, when I complain that my interest in writing amateur Philosophy, which I thought had some substance to it, seems to disappear simply because I spent some time away from that activity, perhaps what I really mean is something much more innocent. I do not mean that my prior interest in Philosophy has turned out to be completely illusory and fickle. I just mean that at the present moment I do not have that sense of immediate enthusiasm for the activity, which you get when you have been immersed in it for some time; a sense which is analogous, perhaps, to the visceral, unreflective sort of excitement that one feels when immersed in a plot, whether it is a well-written plot or not. My interest has not dried up; it has just fallen into a state of surface calm.

The problem with this is that in real life it is quite hard to disentangle one of those attitudes from another. What counts as an intellectual evaluation and what counts as a psychological interest? How do you recognise them? And in making an evaluation, one needs to consider one’s impulses, one’s psychological hunches about an activity. But how does one distinguish between the psychological hunches that arise merely from a time-dependant interest, and those which arise because of more stable properties of oneself and the activity one is evaluating? This may be possible in principle, but it must be quite hard in practice.

One could go on, I suppose, to wonder whether or not there is any point in trying to settle upon one practice just by thinking about it. Perhaps there is, for each person, a large group of activities that have about the same worth, and no amount of earnest contemplation could separate one from the rest. And it is almost never the case that a person is asked to choose one activity at the complete exclusion of the others. And, although time-spent-doing X should not correlate with value-placed-on X, it probably does correlate with degree-of-certainty-in-evaluating-X: so anyone who wants to ascertain soundly the relative worth of his options should spent a goodly amount of time pursuing each of them, as a kind of trial. And even if one might lose something by failing to settle upon some most-highly-valued activity, perhaps there is something to gain, a sense of freedom perhaps, from settling on nothing very quickly.

All of that could, I am sure, be spelt out more thoroughly, and with more skill, by other people. Here it is enough to repeat that I have not only lost the time to engage in the activity of Philosophising, but also, in one sense or another, lost interest in that activity. I do intend, in the next few weeks, to make some effort to rediscover both some interest and some time for that activity. However, it is likely that the results will not amount to much: where I do post on Philosophical topics, those posts will probably just be brushed-up versions of things I have already written, or filled-out versions of things that I have half-finished.

Apart from those Philosophical odds and ends, I hope in the next month or so to continue writing short descriptive pieces about the places I encounter in my travels. I also want to write pieces about the people I meet, as I have not done much of that so far. On top of that, I hope to supply introductions for the categories that are not yet so supplied, so that visitors can see more easily what I am going to place in those categories, and why on earth I would want to devote large parts of my spare time to doing so. If there is any time left over, I will post some extracts from, and reviews of, some books that I have been reading while traveling, or thinking about reading, or wondering if I should bother thinking about reading. These are:

A Land of Two Halves (Joe Bennett hitching around NZ and writing about it.)
All Visitors Ashore (CK Stead’s novel about love and politics and Rangitoto Island, set in the 1950s.)
Philosophy As It Is (An introduction to the subject that I purchased from a Wellington second-hand bookstore; and which I may dip into every now and then).
The Penguin History of New Zealand (Michael King, perhaps NZs most well-known and most-admired historian, summarises the birth and adolescence of his country. Whether or not that country has reached adulthood yet is something that the book will shed light on, I hope).

Stupidity: A Sonnet

Stupidity, the least poetic vice,
Is grey, heavy grey. Golden lust, black hate,
Crimson rage: all excite, if not entice.
(Consider, too, the incompletely chaste.)
But simple lack of sense? Dull, dull. No sheen,
No blazing devil’s hue, no tempting shade.
Before, no wicked strategem; and then,
No passion or despair, just dumb dismay.
He who, having looked a fool, belabours grief,
Betrays a spirit absent as his mind;
And if the spirit finds itself, and speaks:
“I missed a step. So what? Why mope? With time
I’ll ease the sore with verse, erase the fault.”
Mind replies: “Don’t be so obtuse, you dolt."

Lichen, Moss, Shrubs, Trees

There is a place in New Zealand (never mind where) you can go up high and see the steam coming out of cracks in the earth. Go to that place, walk downhill for half an hour or so, then follow the track for two days. Do this and you come across a lot of natural stuff that is rich and varied and worth writing about.

High up there are great curving dunes of shingle, dotted with weird rocks and clumps of earth with moss and small bushes covering them. The rocks are gray, flat-faced; the moss is varied, and the small shrubs are low and stiff. There are one or two tussocks and one or two mountain daisies, little explosions of rigid leaves.

There is lichen up high, too. Go into the mountains and look around and you start to appreciate the hardiness but also the scaly beauty of these little spreading growths. They grow on the peaks of mountains, feeding on the rocks like rust and spreading about in dots and in patches. It grows in bright green beds, minutely mottled. It grows also in frosty white patches, and in little flaky black flowerings.

Here is moss. Here is a white growth, greenish at the edges, that spreads over the plain in soft, rounded cushions. It is white in the sun like lumps of spring snow. From a distance these lumps look smooth and homogenous, but up close you can see that they are made up of thousands of little starry heads, each one no wider than a sandfly and all massed together to make a soft smooth pin-cushion hump.

There are other small things close to the ground. Some are all starry like biddids. One is white and dense and clumped together in tight little constellations. Down here is something also made of tiny heads, but each head is less like a star and more like a little tussock, a finely furred little tuft.

The rocks are little forests of life. Lichen in layers, like the blemishes on elderly skin; velvety moss in dark crimson, almost black; small shrubs; tiny, delicate, bell-shaped flowers, with white petals minutely veined and centres yellow as buttercups.

Shrubs, shrubs, shrubs. Here is a shrub which, from afar, is a mass of up-going fingers, all densely fractalled so that you have fingers growing out of fingers growing out of fingers, and all as vertical as cacti. Up close you notice that each one of those fingers is decorated with minute, overlapping leaves, all tightly arranged to give the appearance of scales. The leaves are all neatly stacked so that all the way down each of those scaly fingers you get the same cross-section, a stubby, four-pointed star.

Over there is another shrub of the same form, only the fingers are thinner and the scales finer; perhaps it is a younger version of the other shrub, or a different shrub altogether. And over there is another plant, with tighter scales. Here the leaves are slightly opened, the tips displaced slightly from the stem, to make a cylindrical pinecone.

And next to it is something else, with the scales are almost fully open. Here the leaves are not flat and wide, as on the other plants, but thin and sharp, with a faint line down their centre like the slim grooved paddles on a racing kayak. And over there, on another mini forest of greenery, the scales are round, round as dinner plates but no bigger than your pupils, and they are fully opened now. The leaves are imperfectly aligned, so if you were very small those leaves would function as an staircase, and you could wind your way up the stem going from one leathery plate to the next in a green spiral.

There are other shrubs too, ones with tiny tiny spikes for leaves, and little green bracken-like things with tidy no-nonsense leaves in a tidy no-nonsense green, and with the tidy fronds overlapping in different directions to make a tidy green thatched canopy two inches off the ground. Daisies with stiff green leaves aggressively spiked and a yellow-green flame at each base. Tussock stems elegantly bowed, bending under the weight of the white pointy leaves at their tips.

And the colours? Christmas-tree green, olive, yellow-green, orange-green, red-green. Pale green seasoned with yellow. Traffic-light green tinged with orange. Green stems tipped with white, so that a tree of these stems looks like a tree on a frosty morning in winter. Green-yellow stems tipped with a brighter green-yellow, so that even at midday a tree of these stems looks as if it is catching the evening sun. Overall, the colour very blended and varied, mixed and layered and dappled, with no smooth gradings and no sharp edges. Complex, richly patterned, life-like.

After the tussock and the low stiff shrubs there is the beech forest. Beech leaves are small and round, no larger than your little fingernail. They grow in numbers in horizontal sheets on the many-fingered branches that extend horizontally out from the trunks, giving the forest its distinctive tiered look. When you look up to the canopy and see the sun or the sky coming through, the sun or the sky appears in a million layered circles and semi-circles and thwarted arcs, all winking and shifting like city lights in the evening.

Every tree, even the small ones, are striped and dappled by lichen. It is luxuriously textured stuff. Here it is stuck fast to the tree like a patch of dry skin; on the tree just there, leaning over slightly, it is blistered and peeling like hot paint; in this trunk, a dead trunk with wrinkles under its limbs as under an armpit, the lichen has a tubular structure, like coral. Sometimes the tubes open outwards in little round crates with white rims.

Through it all is a white, loosely bunched thing that consists in tiny filaments branching off eachother and branching again and again. It gets thinner at each branch, like the network of veins and capillaries that you see in diagrams of the human lungs. This veinous white stuff, tinged with pale green, is in the tangled hair of the trees, on the trunks, and on the top of the wooden poles that mark the track on the walk.

When I walked through all this flora, the small shrubs in the open area and the dark green and mottled beech forest, it was wet and raining slightly. Little globes of rain bowed the tussocks into semi-circles, and spider-webs into drooping hammocks. In one place the web was so fine that all you knew of it was the collection of tiny but precisely reflective drops that threaded themselves onto its invisible wires, and the drops were suspended in the air like a system of glass planets. The rain made the green of the leaves a richer and deeper green, and the trees were stained black.

Rocks, Tongariro Crossing, Rocks

The other day I did the Tongariro Crossing, and because of the fine blue weather I could well see that it is a rock-filled place up there, a crumbling Stonehenge of a place. There are rocks like teeth, all kinds of teeth. There are bared teeth, dull white with gums of moss and black lines marking the gaps between the long white slabs. There are broken teeth, chipped and rotted with moss and gnashing upwards from the sides of hills. There are breathing mouths, mouths with no teeth but great steamy breaths instead, curling over the edges of cliffs and dissolving round the woollen socks of walkers; and there is a pair of open jaws as well, black inside and black teeth sticking down from a black cavern splattered with white as if with blood and yawning out of the crater-wall at the top of Ngaurohoe.Rocks like truffles on the flats, deep black and multifariously lumped. Rocks like coal, flat-faced, many-faced, sharp-edged, dully shining, and black too, the kind of black that looks as if it will make a charcoal mess on your hands if you so much as breath on it. Great heaps of truffles and coal gather on the hillsides like moss and gathering moss on their dark faces themselves. Rocks coloured like chalk, a rich colour as if the pigment goes all the way down, and arranged in mosaics on the sides of mountains, unmoving mandalas laid down so carelessly by the chemical rain of volcanos. A mosaic of red rocks, rusty on the mountain side like a great lichen dappling on the surface of the mountainside. Rocks with lichen dappling on their surface. Ordinary rocks. Ordinary, dusty-dirty rocks, cut-your-bare-feet toe-stubbers, slightly orange slightly yellow and good for crushing into shingle and holding down tents in the wind and not much else I should think. Rocks sliced in two, one slice missing and the other slice with a sharp-edged crater like half of a split marble. Rocks red as a red desert. Rocks white as bird-shit, black as flies, and the red-desert rock stains a rock-face with a bashed gramophone horn of smoke, with a layer of black-fly rock above it in the same shape, only more bashed, and bird-shit rock splattering the face under the red-desert gramophone as if the bottom line of the gramophone were leaking, with a line of white on the lower edge. From far away the whole thing, smoky bashed old desert, with a big tube in the hillside opened up like a windpipe with a gray crust on the outside and the red dust dripping round the inside and some stones falling out the lower edge, from far away the whole thing like an open wound, bright and free and weeping in the high air, and a crust of skin on either side untouching. On a plane as flat as a lake, rocks. Big rocks widely spaced, preoccupied as a herd of cows. Rocks like human faeces, elongated, rudely clumped, messy as a skinned sausage. Rocks like rabbit faeces, light brown in neat circles. Rocks like cattle faeces even, great cow-pats of lava folding down the slopes in great cow-pat layers, not so fresh as once before and cracking at the edges, cracking and splitting at the edges into little fiords. Layered rocks. Layers you can touch from the track, long and narrow and round at the edges like a pile of surfboards. Layers sweeping up in proud angles up on top of hills, prows and visors, and layers making terraces on the sides of other hills, greenish on the top faces and long low cliffs where one terrace drops down to the next. Layers in the rocks with orange lines in between, orange lines like cobwebs on the rock-face. Rivers of rocks. Thin creeks, widely spaced, fiddling down in clay lines from the tops of long ridges to the bottom where they disappear. Wide rivers of rock, orange rock and rock ground to black sand, sweeping down the hills in great highways of rock, widening quickly from a point like a highway seen from a low angle, and also stringy, tangled rivers of rock and mud, tangled hairs of light rock and gray rock running across the plane in dry rivers. Rocks like cemeteries. Black rocks the size of golfballs. White rocks the size of golfballs, seasoning the plain. Black rocks on the hills in shingle clusters. Rocks like wrecked cars up close, and shrinking to full-stops from a distance. Rocks really pebbles that line the green lakes, chemical-green lakes, with the rocks around the edges making a minute frill around the edges and the rocks in the border shallows showing up yellow-green and the shores of gray rocks on the beach like the dull crust around a precious stone you’ve found inside a dull rock and split the rock into ringed steaks. Large rocks on a hill like an old old building, a temple or fort that’s crumbled down now and left its founding stones broken on the top and the crumbs all scattered down the slopes, smaller the further down you go. Black rocks like an old old battleground, all charred limbs and heads and spotted with mossy blood and dripping too. Rocks light as wood, black volcano rocks that file down your boots and rasp away your shins. Rocks that stab your heel on their wheeling way down the mountain, a high mountain and conical and slightly concave and high, high so that from the top everything else looks flat, even the stretch we climbed up earlier and tore our lungs on the steep rocks there. Rocks that fill your pack so that you have a hard time sitting down and a harder time getting up, and rocks that push your pack into your head into the rock on the ground when you’re on a steep bit on all fours. Rocks that make their way into your knees and clash at awkward angles, grinding away down there and jolting out your legs at strange angles every now and then. Rocks from the sun that fall down in rays and deliver headaches from on high. Rocks in your legs and chest, so when you stop and undo your chest-strap there is a great release, an expansion and relaxation, as if you’ve undone your chest altogether and all your sweaty innards have slid out, relieved. Rocks in your pack so that when you take it off you are much too light, and your walk feels strangely out of time, too easy like peddling with the chain off. Rocks that fill your head with rocks. Rocks, rocks, rocks. I went and did the Crossing the other day, and it’s a rock-filled place up there, a crumbling Stonehenge of a place.

Mt. Taranaki Undresses

Mt. Taranaki is beautiful but coy. It is one of the worlds most well-formed cones, second only to Mt. Fuji for the shape and symmetry of its figure. And, as for a lot of mountains and as for other well-formed things, such as cats and horses, every pose that Mt. Taranaki strikes seems to be archetypal: every pose seems to be just the sort of pose that you would expect a mountain to strike. There is, for example, the pose that you see on a fine day if you drive up to New Plymouth from Harewa, cutting (roughly) down the diameter of the (roughly) circular abutment on the West Coast of the North Island of New Zealand, the West fin on Maui’s fish. If you do that you will see that shape and symmetry in full display, the small, tidy peak and the long slightly concave flanks running onto the plain in an immense ramp. Then there is the snow-capped pose, seen from the side, where the top quarter of the mountain is white as a night moon and shines wetly in the sun; the snow line is the same all the way round, but it is not a smooth line, and where the sides are too steep or too nicely aligned to the sun (or something) to carry snow, the mountain juts upwards in long peninsulas of rock. The same mountain, viewed from above, has a puddle of snow that fully covers the rock in the centre and then splashes outwards, like a many-fingered snow-flake.

There are a number of obscured poses as well, where the mountain is partly hidden. Hidden by a foreground hill, the mountain shows only its tidy peak and the curve of one slope, which is usually steeper than the slope of the hill and so curves elegantly out of sight. Hidden by a turban of cloud, only the long flanks show. In the morning or evening sun those flanks can be seen in clear relief, and they have a chiselled, muscular look, starting out very wide and tapering into thin ridges as they go higher. When the sun does not reach those flanks they are softer, not so aggressively three-dimensional, and you notice more the long, slow, curve of the outer slopes, dark against the cloud and smooth except for one or two tiny imperfections, little dents and gashes and wrinkles that show up against the light background.

Most of the time when I was in a position to view the mountain it assumed one or other of its hidden poses. Mostly it was obscured by cloud, thin and ghostly cloud that you can see moving along the ground in slow whorls, or thick grey cloud that makes everything go noticeably darker. Usually there is enough cloud to entice the viewer; too much to satisfy entirely. Standing on the neighbouring Pouakai range, we peered through the cloud and waited like boys peering through the steam at a naked woman in a sauna. Here the cloud whorls away slightly, only to replaced by another confounding whorl. Here it thins, and an outline can be made out in the haze, but it thickens again and the outline is smudged away. You wait an hour and all you get is a dim view of an upper flank, a hazy nipple, an outline of a leg but no detail, the suggestion of an eyebrow. It is not much, but it is enough to hold you there and leave you waiting for a bit longer, stubbornly optimistic.

When the mountain finally revealed herself to us it was late evening, dark and getting darker. On the coast the lights of New Plymouth blinked and jostled. There was a range of low peaks to the South West of us and it was black black black against the pale clear sky. The silhouettes were perfect: precise edges; flat, featureless bodies. It is plausible to describe these silhouettes as bits of black paper stuck onto the sky, but it is not entirely satisfactory, and doesn’t quite do them justice. To grasp their great blackness I find it better to invert the paper cut-out image and imagine that the sky has been cut away rather than added to, that a hill-shaped area of the pale blue sky has been sliced away, and what you see in that sliced-away area is the blackness of space, the blankness of space: a blackness with depth, blackness hiding blackness.

Since it was roughly to the East of where we were standing, Mt. Taranaki was not silhouetted in this way. It was hazy and pale, and we could only just make out the skirt of bush that spreads out from her waist and folds into pleats on the lower stretches, folds into great gullies where the water has worn through the soft volcanic rock, gullies we walked through sweatily the next day.

The moon was silver. Or rather, silver is the best approximation one can find to the colour that the moon was on that evening. For a long time people believed that the moon and everything above it were made of a higher substance, a substance that could not be compared to anything that you could find on earth. Looking at the moon on an evening like this you can see why people might believe such a thing. The strange thing is that, in a place like this, it is easy to imagine that it is not only the moon and the stars and planets that are made out of this lofty matter, the quintessence, but the hills and the mountains as well. Even the bushes and rocks that we sit on and brush against along the track: even these look uncanny, holy.

And the silence is another uncanny thing, another thing that causes a describer to reach for religious imagery in order to capture it properly. It is strange that a landscape as large and powerful as this can be so quiet as this, and so still. There is a short track that leads down to the Pouakai hut from the ridge, and I sit on this track as it gets dark and listen to the landscape. There is nothing to listen too out there, however, so I end up listening to myself listening to the landscape. When I blink my eyes they make a soft clicking sound, and this sound is far louder than anything around me. I feel the blood thumping in my fingertips.

I sit on the track to wait for my tramping companion, Sytze, to come down from the ridge. I expect him to be about five minutes, but he takes about twenty. “It is very touching,” he says when he arrives. Although there is noone around but us, he says it in a whisper, as if in a church. “It is so… perfect.” I don’t say anything, and we pick our way down to the hut in the light of my torch, tripping on roots because the torch is weak.