lizmckinnell

Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Month: June, 2012

Judgment

Today is beautifully sunny.  I just completed a draft of an article on Mill and Wordsworth on the appreciation of nature, which has makes the sunshine even more golden than it otherwise would be.  The next piece of work I have set myself to do is on Kantian accounts on similar themes.  As always with Kant, I am rather daunted.  I decided to take my copy of the Critique of Judgment down to the lake and settle on a fishing platform by the side of the water where the sun’s light danced through the trees, knowing but not caring that I would be easily distracted.

 

PART II

CRITIQUE OF THE TELEOLOGICAL JUDGMENT

 

§ 61. Of the objective purposiveness of Nature

We have on transcendental principles good ground to assume a subjective purposiveness in nature, in its particular laws, in reference to its comprehensibility by human Judgement and to the possibility of the connexion of particular experiences in a system. This may be expected as possible in many products of nature, which, as if they were devised quite specially for our Judgement, contain a specific form conformable thereto; which through their manifoldness and unity serve at once to strengthen and to sustain the mental powers (that come into play in the employment of this faculty); and to which therefore we give the name of beautiful forms…

I tried to think as streaks of sunlight flashed along the rushes in time to their motion in the water.  A silver-blue damselfly resembled an Art Nouveau brooch.  Gradually I became aware that every the space between the rushes was punctuated with them. I noticed that there were two different types, the first striped with blue and black along the length of its body, the other looking like two azure dots connected with the thinnest filament of black that seemed to serve as its abdomen.  It was difficult to believe that those of the latter kind were actually living things.  After a while, the females, more subdued in their colours and markings, started to come into focus, settling on rushes and forming mating pairs with the males, the two bodies often flying attached through the air, forming a single eight-winged form among the translucent thistle seeds that drifted over the lake.

…But that the things of nature serve one another as means to purposes, and that their possibility is only completely intelligible through this kind of causality—for this we have absolutely no ground in the universal Idea of nature, as the complex of the objects of sense. In the above-mentioned case, the representation of things, because it is something in ourselves, can be quite well thought a priori as suitable and useful for the internally purposive determination of our cognitive faculties; but that purposes, which neither are our own nor belong to nature (for we do not regard nature as an intelligent being), could or should constitute a particular kind of causality, at least a quite special conformity to law,—this we have absolutely no a priori reason for presuming. Yet more, experience itself cannot prove to us the actuality of this; there must then have preceded a rationalising subtlety which only sportively introduces the concept of purpose into the nature of things, but which does not derive it from Objects or from their empirical cognition. To this latter it is of more service to make nature comprehensible according to analogy with the subjective ground of the connexion of our representations, than to cognise it from objective grounds…

A trick of the light drew my eye to what I thought was one of the damselfly, but which on inspection was motion below the surface of the lake just at the foot of the platform, which was suddenly alive with hundreds and thousands of tiny translucent fish all following the same motion in swarming clouds.  Casting my eye further out, the lake was a heaving unified mass of little fish, stretching out as far as I could see before the underwater horizon where light below the surface was subsumed in the rippling reflection of the cloudless sky.  Larger brown fish, still only an inch or two long, cut swathes through these crowds.  I knew that further out there would be much larger fish, glassy eyed, hovering in the inaccessible waters at the centre.

…Further, objective purposiveness, as a principle of the possibility of things of nature, is so far removed from necessary connexion with the concept of nature, that it is much oftener precisely that upon which one relies to prove the contingency of nature and of its form. When, e.g. we adduce the structure of a bird, the hollowness of its bones, the disposition of its wings for motion and of its tail for steering, etc., we say that all this is contingent in the highest degree according to the mere nexus effectivus of nature, without calling in the aid of a particular kind of causality, namely that of purpose (nexus finalis). In other words, nature, considered as mere mechanism, could have produced its forms in a thousand other ways without stumbling upon the unity which is in accordance with such a principle. It is not in the concept of nature but quite apart from it that we can hope to find the least ground a priori for this…

The reflections of gulls swooped over the surface of the water, part solid animal, and partly constituted by the currents of air upon which they glided.  A water boatman dragged himself, upside down, under the surface.  He lives in an inverted world, on a viscous blue-painted floor, below a dark stony sky.  Birds swim far beneath in another medium, while fish glide and float above.

…Nevertheless the teleological act of judgement is rightly brought to bear, at least problematically, upon the investigation of nature; but only in order to bring it under principles of observation and inquiry according to the analogy with the causality of purpose, without any pretence to explain it thereby. It belongs therefore to the reflective and not to the determinant judgement. The concept of combinations and forms of nature in accordance with purposes is then at least one principle more for bringing its phenomena under rules where the laws of simply mechanical causality do not suffice. For we bring in a teleological ground, where we attribute causality in respect of an Object to the concept of an Object, as if it were to be found in nature (not in ourselves); or rather when we represent to ourselves the possibility of the Object after the analogy of that causality which we experience in ourselves, and consequently think nature technically as through a special faculty. If we did not ascribe to it such a method of action, its causality would have to be represented as blind mechanism. If, on the contrary, we supply to nature causes acting designedly, and consequently place at its basis teleology, not merely as a regulative principle for the mere judging of phenomena, to which nature can be thought as subject in its particular laws, but as a constitutive principle of the derivation of its products from their causes; then would the concept of a natural purpose no longer belong to the reflective but to the determinant Judgement. Then, in fact, it would not belong specially to the Judgement (like the concept of beauty regarded as formal subjective purposiveness), but as a rational concept it would introduce into natural science a new causality, which we only borrow from ourselves and ascribe to other beings, without meaning to assume them to be of the same kind with ourselves…

There is a tremendous splash among the rushes on my right, and a lovely Old English sheepdog flops into the lake, fracturing the surface into miniature tidal waves.  Birds and fish scatter, wheeling in the sky and forming new eddies in the water.  He paddles round towards me, poking his nose inquisitively out of the water like a baby seal.  He bounds amicably onto the platform and greets me, energised by the cold water saturating his fur.  He shakes himself. Water droplets land on my warm skin, and punctuate Kant’s long sentences.

Romanticism (June 15th 2012)

Thinks it is sad how the word ‘romantic’ has taken on the kinds of associations that it has over the past hundred years or so. It has come to be connected to a particular kind of ‘love’, narrowly defined, between two people, taken apart from a community, and turned in upon each other. First there is the individual, then there is the couple, and then, perhaps, a very small nuclear family. ‘Roman…ce’ or ‘romanticism’, with the tonnes of expenditure and consumer waste that it creates is part of the perpetuation of this structure.

‘If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to all others, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.’
Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

It is also bound up with fairy tales, and with archetypes that real human beings constantly fail to measure up to. Even where ‘romantic’ is taken in a wider sense than the common use, it is often used to refer to what is unrealistic, what belongs in some fanciful world that lies beyond or above our own, and has little to do with what is really going on. Hence we have the positive ‘Ooooh, he’s so romantic’, alongside the negative ‘Isn’t that suggestion / political programme / view of humanity rather romantic?’

The romantic movement in art and literature was concerned in many cases with the real situations of people, and with what was present and possible in reality. ‘Jerusalem’ was not a distant land, or a promise of the next life, but rather something that we could build right here if we were prepared to take up the fight.

Yes, there was a sense that life was more than immediate appearances, but the beauty and truth of life was immanent in the world, not removed from it. Blake, Wordsworth and co.’s romanticism was rooted in the earth, both in the appreciation of the natural world and in the political aims of improving the situation of humanity.

Similarly, romanticism was about love, but the love that it describes is at once more general and more specific than the ‘romantic love’ of hearts and flowers and candlelight. It was more specific because of the immanence of truth and beauty in the particular. Features of each person, each object of natural beauty, each situation, demanded a loving attention that could only be achieved through an openness and receptivity to what that particular had to offer.

At the same time, such attentiveness leads the romantic, at least in Wordsworth’s case, to an understanding of how nature operates on many levels, and how it has a unity as well as a particularity. For Wordsworth, human beings are part of this. This is why the romantic can embrace the ideas of individuality, originality and self-direction, while having a deep and serious account of the notion of human fellowship. Through loving things in their particularity, we can achieve something like the idea of agape. It is only through this attention to the particular, and not through imposing preconceived abstractions or theoretical models that this becomes possible.

This is not to speak out against the notion of ‘romantic love’ as we might usually understand it. I would be a fool to do that. Rather, it is to say that the sort of attentiveness that we can have to a particular person should both reflect and absorb the idea that we are situated in a world that nurtures and supports us. The reclamation of the romantic is personal, political and ecological.

Wordsworth and Nature (June 11th 2012)

‘Unlike the variegated, intense whirl of cities, the Lake District impressed on the mind just a few permanent objects, but ones that changed subtly with the weather, the seasons and the characteristic activities pursued at different times of year. Instead of meaningless differences, random variety and blank confusion, the setting of life in rural England conveyed a sense of order and permanence, …of change within stable and predictable limits. In this sense Renaissance Platonism lived on in Wordsworth’s poetry, with the Forms now drawn down from the transcendent realm and objectified in rocks, mountains, lakes and forests.’ ~ Lewis and Sandra Hinchman, ‘What We Owe the Romantics’ Environmental Values 16 (2007)I think that there is something in this, although the Platonism connection is a little peculiar. I think that the abandonment of the ‘transcendent realm’ identified here is precisely what distinguishes Wordsworth from the Platonists, and it isn’t at all clear what talk of ‘the Forms’ could mean, beyond talk of form.

I think on the whole what is said about Wordsworth here is dead right though. Personally, I experience this a lot less in dramatic landscapes like the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands, and a lot more in Norfolk, where the flat mercurial watery landscape quietly reflects every subtle change in the big open skies.

The lack of drama in these landscapes took me a while to get used to (I have a tendency to be more Shelley than Byron, more expressionist than impressionist in my rather overblown tastes) but the change in my surrounding landscape is concurrent with the development of my thinking over the past year. The East Anglian landscape, like Wordsworth’s poetry, forces you to be passively attentive to the land, rather than simply to venture into it as some kind of thrill seeker.

Ranting (May 2012)

this was one of those angry Facebook posts I was glad to have written in retrospect.  Its target is not academics themselves, but government policy, and the effect that has on university structures and how we are all pressured into thinking.
________________________________________________

Students are not pots of money, they are human beings who want to be educated, and who need to be taken seriously as people.Teaching is not an awkward inconvenience that we need to countenance in order to fund our research activities.

Undergraduates are students of the discipline which we are all still learning. Every one of us in academia has built what we are able to do on a foundation of un…dergraduate study. We would not have got anywhere without communities of academics who recognised us as beings who were capable of developing skills and ideas, and addressed as us intelligent people who were capable of thinking at a higher level than we were at the time.

We can’t afford to start regarding students’ education as a means to further our individual personal ends, and nor can senior academic staff wave a magic wand such that junior staff will fill the teaching gap with no opportunity to develop research – what will happen to the subject a decade down the line?

Anyone who seriously cares about the future of their academic discipline, rather than scoring personal points for their own research, needs to resist a system bent on increasing individuation and objectification of people. Even as an individual, recognising the debt that you owe to the work of people who have come before you involves recognising and developing the thought of the people who will come after you.

These seem to be obvious things to say. It should not even be necessary to say them. Right at the moment, to say them feels subversive.

How I am Not a Christian (March 2012)

It is probably rather arrogant of me not only to steal the lovely Bertie’s title, but also to disfigure it in this way.  I do so partly to highlight a significant difference in the way that I want to think about this compared with how Bertrand Russell does.  I am not, and have never been, interested in the arguments provided by natural theology, other than as entertaining philosophical puzzles, which interest me now in precisely the same ways that they did while I still professed to believe in God. So far as I am concerned arguments of this nature have absolutely no bearing on the question of religious faith, and to reduce one’s faith to an issue of whether or not one accepts an argument from intelligent design, or a complex ontological proof, cheapens the very idea of faith.  Moral arguments for believing in God are a rather different beast, and I think that they can hold some sway for some people, although as I shall explain they turn out to have extremely different consequences for my own outlook.  I cannot provide you with a reason why I am not a Christian, in the sense of giving a justification.  What I am more interested in is a range of ideas that can be captured by better by the word ‘how’: I want to talk about the respects in which I am not a Christian (because there are other respects in which I almost certainly am) and I want to talk about the possibility of life after God, and the change in the way that I live in the world that came about with my acknowledgement that I no longer held this particular form of religious faith.

 

 

I have meant to write this for ages, especially as various people have asked me questions about it that I could not properly answer on the hoof, but I have started thinking about this more as lent goes on, and as we are getting increasingly close to Holy Week, a time of significant reflection and contemplation for many Christians, and also for myself.  As I go on, I would like to try to articulate why and how Holy Week, and other dates in the Christian religious calendar, are important to me.

 

 

But to begin with, I would like to talk about when I ‘was’ a Christian.  I grew up in an Anglican household that was at the same time very devout and very liberal.  Religious faith was taken seriously, not just on a Sunday, but as something that should inform and flow through one’s whole life and actions.  It was a way of shaping one’s life that allowed one to live well, not a list of propositions that one should be able to reel off.  But while this was expansive and all-encompassing, it was not dogmatic.  For example, the words of the Bible were there to be discussed, interpreted and debated, and similarly their very role and purpose were subject to similar discussion.  Through this interpretation and discussion of religious texts, we were also encouraged to contemplate and consider day to day life through the lens of faith, in such a way that the discursive-interpretative elements were inseparable from the idea that faith should be a practical matter of how one should live, as well as a statement of belief.  Thus vision, imagination, thought and action could not be regarded as separable parts of life, and nor could the sacred and the everyday.  The vicar of my old church, Ben De La Mare (nephew, I think, of Walter – some relation in any case) was a very big fan of George Herbert, and this poem of his, made into a hymn, always sticks in my mind:

 

The Elixir

 

Teach me, my God and King,

        In all things thee to see,

And what I do in any thing,

        To do it as for thee:

 

        Not rudely, as a beast,

        To runne into an action;

But still to make thee prepossest,

        And give it his perfection.

 

        A man that looks on glasse,

        On it may stay his eye;

Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,

        And then the heav’n espie.

 

        All may of thee partake:

        Nothing can be so mean,

Which with his tincture (for thy sake)

        Will not grow bright and clean.

 

        A servant with this clause

        Makes drudgerie divine:

Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,

        Makes that and th’ action fine.

 

        This is the famous stone

        That turneth all to gold:

For that which God doth touch and own

        Cannot for lesse be told.

 

 

I am saying all this in response to some rather contradictory criticisms that are levelled at Christianity in general and Anglicanism in particular.  It is said that Christianity (and often religious faith in general) is a dogmatic practice that encourages us to live unreflective lives, and interferes with everything we do, leading us to be slavish individuals with little or no autonomy.  It is also said (often by the same people) that Anglicanism is perhaps a more forgivable flavour of Christianity since its practitioners don’t take it all that seriously.  This is not true, although either statement is probably true of some Christians, just as it analogous things can be true of some atheists.

 

 

Another aspect of a religious upbringing for many people is the fact that right from the start of one’s life, one finds oneself in the middle of an extended community.  The baptism of infants has often been a cause of dispute in the church.  Some people maintain that it is wrong to baptise a child into a faith when that child is far too young to have any comprehension of what that faith involves.  There are no Christian babies, just as there are no vegetarian babies, or Anarcho-Capitalist babies.  There are merely the babies of Christians, vegetarians and anarcho-capitalists.  This is true.  But for my parents baptism was not to do with indoctrinating a child into a certain religious ideology, but rather to welcome them into a community which in turn affirms its intention to protect and care for that child as they grow into an adult who is capable of making their own choices.

 

 

Some people reading may regard this as sinister, as the ‘initiation’ of an innocent child into a community based on a set of values that they may not otherwise have chosen.  I think what this view misses is that we are inevitably surrounded by a whole background of ways of life, structures of thought and so on.  We cannot and should not raise children in a value-free bubble and somehow expect them to emerge one day as rational adults with the capacity to consider what they want to believe.  Forming frameworks of belief against a background of pre-existing thought is how we operate.  In order to have a view, one must be standing somewhere in the first place.

 

 

The church in which I grew up was a diverse community in terms of age, social background and political belief.  It was a community of very different people who had to figure out how to get along together and make decisions, sometimes harmoniously, and often not.  This was a tremendous element of my childhood and teens, standing in very strong contrast to the relatively isolated experience that many children have of primarily engaging with siblings and one or two adults, with wider family and friends playing a more distant role.  There was a closeness and regularity of contact that made strong impressions, and many of the people with whom I grew up are people who I still regard in some way as family, even though many of us now have wildly divergent ideas and beliefs.

 

 

My experience of religion was not always so positive.  At one point in my teens I explored pathways that were rather more evangelical, and often rather more dogmatic.  The freedom of discussion to which I had become accustomed was something that was somewhat frowned on, and there was an emphasis on uniformity of belief and behaviour.  I attended one large meeting in a big theatre, where people gave religious ‘testimony’ about how they had been ‘saved’.  Many of these people told stories about how Christ had rescued them from a life of prostitution or drug abuse, or brought them back from the brink of suicide.  This was also a meeting where people became supposedly possessed with the holy spirit, falling to the floor and speaking in tongues, and where people’s ailments were miraculously ‘healed’.  The pressure to conform, to feel that one too had been saved, was immense and almost overpowering.  I became, during this time in my life, increasingly worried about how vulnerable people might be unwittingly lured from one dangerous dependency to another.  These forms of Christianity are very much the minority in this country, although that is unfortunately not the case the world over.

 

 

Nonetheless, I do not have, and have never had, any objection to religion as such. I recognise that many terrible things are done in the name of religion, but by and large I think that these are generally terrible things that would be done in the name of something. People with twisted, sadistic or violent outlooks on the world are not first and foremost religious – first and foremost they are arseholes.  The important question is how they live, not which creed they ascribe to, if any.

 

 

So how come I ended up where I am now? I think the simplest answer is that on some level I never did believe.  As even a very small child I had the big angsty fear of death.  Not of dying, or of being punished by God, or anything like that, but the fear of what I could not help but hold to be a certainty: that one day I would not exist to be the subject of any experiences.  I knew at the time that this was incompatible with what I thought that I believed, but I could not get around the certainty that there was nothing after death.  I could also not get around the certainty that this was a dreadful seeming impossibility. The only way that I could deal with it, and which only came to me after several years of sleepless nights, was to tell myself something along the lines of: ‘Liz, you are ten years old, you are not nearly wise or clever enough yet to think about these things.  There is no hurry, come back to it when you are a grownup’.  That worked at the time, although twenty years on with an undergraduate degree involving philosophy, theology and anthropology, and two postgraduate degrees in philosophy, one dealing explicitly with death, I am not sure I am really any better at dealing with it.

 

 

Another place where the non-belief crept in was probably with my incorrigible instinctive empiricism.  When I started to have my doubts about Santa Claus, I carried out a test on my parents.  Just as we went to put the note up the chimney, I asked them to stop so that I could add an extra secret item which would just be between me and Santa.  They were not allowed to see it.  My poor parents begged and pleaded with me, despite my attempts at stubborn refusal, to let them see the amended note.  Eventually I relented because I couldn’t bear to see them so obviously distressed.  The evidence was thus circumstantial, and did not provide a watertight proof, but I decided I would rather settle for that than see my parents upset.  As with many children, I connected this to the question about God, but concluded that the difference was that my parents probably actually believed in God, and I was pretty sure that they did not believe in Santa.  This was a good reason to hold back on rejecting God’s existence.  My parents were and are very bright people, and probably more likely to be right about things than I was.  Nonetheless, it did move me in the direction of a somewhat tentative agnosticism, one that I generally shelved at the back of my mind, again until I was better equipped to wrestle with these questions.

 

 

Even with the aforementioned studies in philosophy, theology and anthropology, I was not ready to acknowledge my lack of religious faith until I was around 23 and starting out on my PhD, although I had been gradually coming around to it for a very long time.  It was not that I was unsure.  Being unsure about something, I had realised, should not stop one from expressing a view on it.  Otherwise philosophers would hardly be able to get up in the morning, and would probably pretty much just sit around in their pants all day.  Rather, it was a question of everything that would have to follow from admitting this to myself.  Once I was open with myself about this, I was afraid that the bottom would drop out of my world.  So much of my life was unconsciously structured around a set of religious beliefs, that I wondered how it would be possible to make any kind of sense of anything without having my Christianity to cling on to.

 

 

Nonetheless, I eventually took the plunge and started calmly telling people who happened to raise such things and ask such questions that I did not believe in God.  Strangely, nothing happened, at least not immediately.  I had underestimated how much the restructuring had already started to take place subconsciously, probably over the course of at least a decade.  New pathways had started to form that made life in some way possible.  Things carried on as normal, and the world did not seem to end.

 

 

Christmas came and went, and I realised that all my life it had been much more about family, kindness, generosity and good humour in the cold winter days than it had been about the birth of Christ.  I had feared that Christmas would be a crisis point, and for it to pass by in its typically good-humoured way was a great relief.

 

 

Easter had always been something that had crept up on me.  While there had been that reflective period during Lent, life pretty much went on as normal until suddenly it was Easter day and the miracle of it hit me by surprise every year.  While in this country we usually think of Christmas as the big festival, Easter is really the big deal.  Christ’s death and resurrection is after all in many ways the foundation of it all.  As usual, Easter burst in on me by surprise, and it was a terrible shock.

 

 

In the morning, Jamie brought me some chocolate eggs.  I took one look at them and burst into tears.  I very suddenly felt the full force of what wasn’t there, as if I were about to implode.  The gaudily decorated pointless chocolate shell with nothing beneath the surface seemed so dreadfully apt. For most of the morning and afternoon I was inconsolable.  God had died and he wasn’t going to rise again.

 

 

Jamie suggested that we should go for a walk to try and help me take my mind off things.  I didn’t much see the point in that, or really in anything at all, but I decided that I might just as well do that as anything else.  The day was rather like today has been, with golden spring sunshine but just a hint of a chill in the breeze.  We climbed the green hill out of the village up to the high fields where the sheep graze and you can see for miles in all directions, with Durham City, Gateshead and the edge of Sunderland all barely visible on the brow of each horizon.

 

 

It was lambing season, and suddenly I caught sight of a newborn lamb, still slightly clumsy and trying to figure out how its body worked, skipping haphazardly and playing on the bright grass.  What happened is hard to describe, but it is probably the closest and the furthest I have been to/from a religious experience.  I was suddenly looking at a lamb without the Lamb of God, without new life being symbolic of the resurrection, without this world being a dull shadow of a brighter world beyond my experience.  The colours suddenly seemed more vibrant, the breeze hit my skin with greater force, the ground under my feet felt solid and the world what what it is, and it was beautiful.  I will always carry that moment with me.

 

 

This was a non-theistic Road to Damascus, but it was importantly a very Christian one.  The experience would not have made any sense without the lamb on the green hill without a city wall.  The very terms in which my non-Christianity is framed are Christian ones.  The same is very much true of my approach to moral philosophy, which is significantly shaped by the early experience of the good life, based on reflection, and situated within a community.  I cannot, for example, truly understand philosophers who treat morality as something that can be conveniently bracketed off until one encounters a specifically ‘moral’ situation in which a difficult dilemma has to be solved (typically involving a runaway train, a bizarre hostage situation, or a fat man wedged in the mouth of a cave).

 

 

So there are ways in which my view of morality is shaped by the particular Christian roots that I came from.  But in other ways I have discovered a sort of moral development (although not an explicitly philosophical one) that has come out of the growth that has unfolded away from those roots.  A lot of it was there, although I didn’t see it at the time, in the vision of the lamb on the hilltop.  It comes from an awareness of the world as it is.  I do not mean a world that is stripped of personally specific symbolism and significance.  That was certainly not the case in that instance, and I do not think it is even possible.  What I mean (in broadly phenomenological terms) is the world ‘as it is’ ‘for me’.  An experience of the unmediated direct importance of things, understood and loved for their own sake, not for the sake of their place in a grand scheme or structure of beliefs.  They matter to me because they simply do, as they are presented to me in my immediate experience of them.

 

 

This is a little like one of Karl Marx’s criticisms of religion.  Marx thought that religion alienated people from each other, while creating a false sense of a relationship that was actually mediated through a higher power (This is in his ‘On the Jewish Question’ if you are interested).  I have no desire to make such claims about religion, since it goes against many of the ways in which I have seen many religious people lead their lives, I can only talk about that being how it was for me.  I certainly think that some Christian schools of thought (you can see this particularly in the thought of St Francis of Assisi) are less subject to this than others.

 

 

And there is a serious danger for anyone who thinks that a rejection of religion is a rejection of metaphors and symbols that frame the way that we see the world.  To think this is to lay oneself open to the danger of embracing new dangerous ones, and unconsciously drawing on the old ones in unreflective and potentially harmful ways.

I think that we should not feel too afraid of the ways in which our religious heritage (and yes Atheists, you have a religious heritage) can help us to frame our thoughts and give meaning to the world that we each inhabit.

 

 

Yesterday I went to an exhibition in Norwich’s Catholic Cathedral about the Turin Shroud, which included one of the few full-sized accurate replicas.  Some parts of the exhibition consisted of earnest billboards explaining how the ‘scientific evidence’ was consistent with the image on the shroud being created by a flash of light that occurred at the moment of resurrection.  I found that a bit unnerving, getting the impression that Christians should not really be cheapening themselves with appeals of that kind.  What I did find deeply moving was a detailed section on the methods of crucifixion used during Roman times and subsequently.  It brought to mind the dreadful, fleshy, human brutality that Christ and others were subjected to, the reality of human cruelty.  Friday 6th April is Good Friday, the day that commemorates Christ’s torture and slow death by crucifixion.  It strikes me as a particularly salient day for people from a Christian cultural background to reflect on the fact that we still live in a world where people are subjected to appalling torture and death, often for no other reason than the expression of views that are taken to be politically dangerous:

 

 

‘And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ Matthew 25: 40

Men are Not the Village Bikes (from October 2011)

‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’

This phrase, often attributed to Gloria Steinem (although she and U2 both borrowed the phrase from fellow campaigner Irena Dunn) has become a resonant slogan in some strands of the women’s movement, emphasising female independence and self-reliance.  However, the phrase might seem a little crass to many ears.  It seems to dismiss men as being like chocolate teapots – a man is a dispensable and useless commodity that is best done away with.  Most women are extremely fond of at least some men, and value the different roles that male friends, relatives and lovers play in the patterns of their individual lives.  In turn, these men value the place that they hold in the lives of the women that they care about, and would quite reasonably object to being dismissed as a ‘fish’s bicycle’.

The phrase also evokes a fundamental strangeness in the putting together of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, as though the words refer to a surreal and uncomfortable juxtaposition, reminiscent of Dali’s lobster telephone.  Surrealism and Dadaism is often premised on the idea of combinations of objects that would not usually be seen together, or objects in a peculiar context.  Think of the apple hovering incongruously in front of a bowler-hatted man’s face in a Magritte painting, or Duchamp’s urinal, which becomes an absurd object of art when placed in the smart serious surroundings of a gallery.  The image of man with woman does not evoke these connotations, unless the smartly suited man is pictured picnicking with attractive naked women (surrealists didn’t tend to explore this juxtaposition so much the other way around – perhaps that would have been too shocking, or perhaps they were just a little more comfortable with the traditional female muse than with scrutinising their own bits).  In any case, the image of a woman and man fully clothed, strolling down a boulevard arm in arm is more reminiscent of Renoir than his surrealist successors.  It is in a number of senses the very opposite of surreal.

It might seem fairer to say that a woman needs a man like a woman needs a bicycle.  The good ones are a pleasure to have around, make life easier, and they help us to achieve certain things that would otherwise be a bit laborious and time-consuming without artificially-powered assistance.  It is also true that we will not actually languish and die if we don’t have one.  Even this analogy breaks down fairly quickly though: it isn’t OK to take them for a ride, and most of them (although not all) would not react well if we put a chain on them and fastened them to things with padlocks.

Perhaps the analogy of a human being with any kind of mechanical device betrays a kind of instrumentalist thinking that risks treating people as objects.  The fish does not need a bicycle, because what would it need it for?  Implicit in this idea might be the notion that if a woman needs a man, she needs him for the sake of some purpose or goal.  Since the purpose or goal is not suited to her (or perhaps because she can achieve it without him) he is surplus to requirements.  Maybe this is part of the point though.  It is not respectful to think of people in terms of what we can get from them or achieve through them, so we ought to encounter each other as free, independent, autonomous beings who weave our life-stories together through choice.  Anything less is to degrade our relationships and view the other person as a means to an end.  When we start thinking about each other in terms of instrumental needs, relationships cannot reflect the dignity with which we all deserve to be treated.

It is not clear that this entirely rescues things though, and this is because not all of our needs are instrumental.  I need food, water, exercise and rest for the sake of what they will do for me.  I need the presence of the significant people in my life for the sake of who they are, and for the sake of those relationships themselves, not any further instrumentalist goal.  If we accept that there is some kind of need going on there, we cannot say that a (specific) woman needs a (specific) man like a fish needs a bicycle, because that would imply that the fish does not need the bicycle for its survival, but it has a complex and valuable relationship with it.  That would be cute, but it would also be a tad funny – the kind of humour that arises from the surreal juxtapositions that I mentioned before.  We may also pity the fish for having made some kind of error about what the bicycle is – perhaps it mistook it for a protective larger fish, or a potential mate.  Similar to this recent observation of a beetle attempting to mate with a beer bottle:

 http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2011/09/oz-insect-attempts-to-mate-wit.html

Poor deluded creature.  We all love our beer, but not quite in that way.

Dunn’s phrase then seems to fail to capture a lot of what is important in our lives, and has frequently evoked angry and often defensive and misogynistic responses (see the disgusting ‘Angry Harry’ blog for evidence of this:

http://www.angryharry.com/esLikeAFishNeedsABicycle.htm)

These responses, while objectionable and alarming in themselves, are understandable.  It is quite easy to see how someone who feels that they are being told that they no longer have a place or value could lash out at the whole group that they perceive as robbing them of it.  Perhaps Steinem/Dunn’s phrase might be accused of creating an unhelpful ‘us and them’ mindset, where enemy lines are drawn.  This certainly wasn’t the intention of either campaigner, neither of whom would favour extreme ideas like ‘lesbian separatism’ which advocate women living entirely without men – both of their biographies would suggest otherwise.  ‘Political lesbianism’ would seem to be an option only for women who are bisexual, and arguably not even then; and as for political celibacy, well let’s just say it doesn’t strike me as a whole lot of fun.  So the division between man and woman isn’t something that is literally intended here, even if the words do cast that effect on some ears.

So how should we read the slogan?  We can take an analytic approach here, which may help to some extent, although as I will go on to explain, I don’t think it does everything we need it to.  The analytic response is to say that what is really intended is that a woman qua woman needs a man qua man like a fish needs a bicycle.  Now it is easy to see why that never caught on as something to daub on toilet doors, but what I mean is that a woman can exist perfectly happily as a woman without having someone occupying a male gender role in her life.  This may not be true of all women in all circumstances, but there is nothing about what it fundamentally is to be a woman (if there is such a thing) that makes women need men for support, protection or whatever else.  This raises the issue of context, which will be relevant shortly, since there have been some historical circumstances in which women have undoubtedly relied on men in order to have any kind of satisfactory lives as women.  Nonetheless, instances of women at certain times managing very well in the world without male intimates demonstrates that this is not true qua woman. It is also true that we do need men in another sense – we should not forget the fact that we depend on them for our existence (artificially powered assistance is all well and good, but there are some things that it can’t produce) and we also rely all the time on intellectual, technical and other innovation that has been driven by men before and since women could contribute to those fields.  However, this dependence is not contingent on them being men, or on us being women.

Another way that we might look at this analytically would lead to a rejection of the phrase.  We might say that ‘a woman needs a man’ in the sense that we would have no concept of ‘woman’ as such if women were the only human beings around.  ‘Woman’ would be meaningless without some sort of gender binary or spectrum against which it can be defined (it won’t catch on, but I like the term ‘genderscape’ to describe the weird and multidimensional topology of this crazy little thing called gender).  ‘Woman’ needs ‘Man’ (or some other equivalent) to be comprehensible, and vice-versa, while we can understand ‘Fish’ without any reference to the concept of ‘Bicycle’ (just as well, or we would have been very confused about fish for all those millennia before the bicycle was invented).

But this would obviously be an unhelpful way to interpret the slogan, and this brings me on to the matter of context.  The slogan cannot be read in isolation without reference to the political work that it was trying to do, and the political and economic circumstances of the time.  Back in 1970, there was a genuine current of opinion that women could not thrive independently without male assistance or support.  The nuclear family was held up in non-radical circles as the only ideal towards which women should strive, and the nuclear family was defined with a very rigid set of power relationships.  People talk about the ‘swinging sixties’ as a time when the conventional order broke down, but my parents have often helpfully pointed out that this was only true among a small minority, and did not extend to most people’s lives until decades later.

The slogan (coined around 1969-70) did not aim to promulgate the opinion that men were worthless or dispensable, but rather that women were (potentially at least) autonomous beings who could exist and thrive outside of a narrowly defined set of social circumstances.  It did not aim to set man apart as ‘the other’ or ‘the enemy’, because in the real circumstances of many women’s lives, these divisions existed already.  In fact, the slogan only really makes sense insofar as divisions of this kind are in place – it is not then a manifesto for separatism, it is a reaction to separateness.  Without people taking this kind of stance, and divorcing themselves from the traditional models, we would have been unable to reflect on these models in a critical way.  It might seem like a paradox, but women needed to say that they did not need men in order for men and women to look each other in the eye as fellow human beings and think in earnest about how they could truly serve each other’s non-instrumental needs.

Dealing with a PhD crisis (April 2011)

I was thinking of sticking this in the postgrad office and somewhere online as a sort of ‘open this in case of emergency’ thing.  I’m going to make it a little more (undauntingly) philosophical and more comprehensive, but this is the initial splurge.  Any suggestions would be very welcome.

There will be a point during your PhD when you lose motivation completely.  In fact most of us have many of those times.  You haven’t done any work for days, maybe even weeks or months, you don’t see how it is possibly ever going to get finished, and the only option seems to be to drop the whole damn thing and find something else to do.  I am writing this for when you find yourself in this situation.  If it applies to you, keep reading.

 

First of all, get it out of your system a little.  Grab a tissue and sob like a small child, kick an inanimate object (as an ethicist I am afraid I cannot condone kicking the cat, but perhaps if an inanimate object won’t cut it, you can find a consenting adult to thump with a cushion).  Perhaps if you are one of those crazy people who finds exercise soothing, you could go for a run or a gym session (try playing some shitty 1980s high energy power ballad in the background so you can pretend you’re in a montage sequence – that’s always fun).  You may feel like you don’t have the time to do all this, but trust me, it might well gain you time in the long run.  When you’ve done whatever it is, come back to this and read on.

Right, now to read the rest of this in the correct frame of mind, you will need some vital equipment.  This can vary according to your personal taste.  One thing that does the job for me is a cup of tea, but coffee, chocolate, wine, spirits, cigarettes, pies or hard drugs (only kidding?) might do just as well. If any of them fail to work on their own, try a combination.  If that doesn’t work, try all of them at once.  If you don’t eat junk food, smoke, or drink caffeine or alcohol, that may be why you have found yourself in this situation in the first place.  Consider developing some bad habits.  You can do rehab after your viva.

 

The first thing is that everyone finds themselves here.  When I say everyone, I mean everyone – except scary people who complete their PhDs in two years, but we don’t talk to them.  Most of us have taken around four or five years to get done (yeah, we don’t talk about that very often) and a good bit of that time has been spent frozen with PhD terror, crying into a pillow, or procrastinating with hours of Facebook, computer games or porn.  Look at everyone with the title ‘Dr’ before their name – if you have a behaviour pattern that makes you feel inadequate, there is a good chance that they have done it at some time or other.  It comes with the territory.  So now you know our terrible secrets.

 

Of course, all of these are a precursor to the most terrible secret of all.  Prepare yourself for this: we all think we’re rubbish.  Some of us only think this occasionally, some of us think it all the time, but most of us think it most of the time.  We might think back to when we’ve been to the departmental research seminar, or some conference, and they are full of brilliant clever people who seem to know the subject inside out, and we don’t feel like we know it at all.  You were probably among the brighter people at school, and perhaps among the brightest of your peers at undergraduate level, but people in this environment seem to be operating on some kind of higher plane.  Maybe you had the balls and resourcefulness to bluff it earlier on, but these guys really know their stuff, and they are going to find you out.

 

It may come as some comfort that my father, a retired professor, well known and respected in his field and with several books to his name, has admitted to feeling like this.  OK, so it’s an alarming thing that it never completely goes away, but lots of the brilliant clever people at those conferences and seminars feel exactly the way that you do.  That is no guarantee that you are brilliant and clever of course, but the way that you feel is no reason to suppose that you are not.  In fact, take it as some encouragement.  Philosophy is hard – very hard.  If you feel as though you understand something well, it probably means either that you’re missing the really hard (and really significant) bit of it, or that it’s time to move on and read new stuff until it gets hard again.  The fact that you are struggling means that you are working at the right level – good job.

 

But you might not feel that this is relevant.  If you haven’t picked up a book in five weeks, you almost certainly feel that it is not (if you have held a book recently enough that the previous paragraph applies to you – again, good job).  But the problem often isn’t so much understanding the work, it’s doing it in the first place.  You go to bed frustrated with your lack of resolve, and determined to put more effort in tomorrow, but every day the same strange thing happens – or doesn’t.  You turn on the computer, and rather than looking at that article or writing that chapter, your fingers involuntarily stray over the mouse and you end up doing the ‘Which Sex and the City character are you?’ quiz, or looking at tat on ebay.  Maybe you don’t even get as far as the computer, perhaps you sit in your dressing gown watching trash on TV, or reading a novel.  I have even gone to the extremes of doing housework as an avoidance activity – that must be bordering on mental illness.

 

Why do we do this?  I think everyone has their own answer, but for me it comes down to fear.  All that tricky stuff that you don’t really feel that you can achieve might just go away if you stick your fingers in your ears and go ‘lalalalala’.  OK, it won’t really go away, but as long as I’m not thinking about it, I don’t have to think about it (the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club -( XKCD)).

 

The approach to this is to make it seem less scary.  As the most disorganised person in the world, I hate to admit it, but the best strategy here is to make lists.  Start with the whole big terrifying monster – what are the tasks ahead that are daunting you?  Perhaps all you can think here is ‘THEEEESIIIIIIS!!!!’  Grit your teeth and write them/it down, together with the date you need to get them done by.  OK, so that was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as you imagined.  Now think about how you can divide it up.  Split the thesis into chapters, and chapters into sections.  If you don’t know what the chapters or sections are yet, think about what you will need to do to figure that out.  Set little periods of time aside to read one article, one chapter, or to make plans (don’t make any of these longer than a few hours).  Include on your list the people you need to speak to, both to help you figure out ideas and to restore your sanity.  Make time to talk to them and stick it into the plan.

 

Also set aside time for yourself free from the PhD.  Believe me, all those activities you do to put off working are so much more delicious when you can do them guilt-free within your schedule.  The main thing though is that once you stop looking at the PhD stress as a huge tangled mass of stuff, and split it up into little tasks, you can work your way through them and feel good about ticking them off.  Remember those bad habits I suggested you cultivate?  Think of them as rewards for getting something out of the way.

 

So you’ve made your list, and this is probably already a bit of a weight off your mind.  Another thing to make sure that you do is talk to us.  There are a lot of us in the department who are either at the stage you are at now, or will have been through it at some point.  These people can be a great source of moral support, as well as helping out with ideas and suggestions about your work.  We will not think that you are stupid or lazy or inadequate.  At least if we do, we will indulge it because we are also stupid, lazy and inadequate.  It is very easy to hide from everyone when things are not going so well.  There is an almost animal instinct to cower behind the bushes so that we are safe from attackers.  This is the start of a self-perpetuating cycle, because there is nobody there to break those awful patterns of thought.  Try working in the postgrad room in the dept., or in Elvet Riverside, and making regular opportunities to talk to people casually.  Returning to the vices (a recurring theme that you will have noticed) I used to find smoking particularly handy for this.  If you do not want to give yourself lung cancer, try meeting someone for coffee every day, even if it’s only for twenty minutes.

 

On a larger and longer term scale, conferences (and Eidos) can do the same thing.  They give you a good chance to meet like-minded freaks, as well as providing that work deadline that can give us a badly needed boot up the backside.  They may seem daunting, but it is amazing how supportive people can be the moment you start tentatively mentioning your worries about your work.  Eidos gave me a bit of a road to Damascus experience towards the start of my second year.  In the pub after the talk, when asked how my PhD was going, I offered a weak smile and a shrug of despair.  The reaction that greeted me was ‘Oh God, me too, I haven’t done any decent work in ages!’, then everyone started piling in with similar stories, together with useful tips about how to deal with these situations.  I left the pub feeling a great deal happier, although the beer may also have helped.  The experience has stayed with me ever since, and helped with some of the worst crises.

 

Of course, there is a stage when none of this will help, and this is the last few weeks or months of the writing up stage.  I think I will save that for another time, because it deserves a piece all of its own, but this is the time where we all go crazy, stop eating properly, work stupid hours and turn into stary eyed, wild haired hermits who live off coffee and packets of biscuits.  I remember, two days before handing it in, thinking ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, what would happen if I packed it in now?’  At this stage, everyone goes mad, and the important thing to remember is that in the bizarre parallel universe that postgraduates inhabit, that is absolutely OK.

 

I’m going to come back to this, and add more as I think about it and as other people make suggestions, but the final thing you have to remember is that a PhD is at least as much of a psychological challenge as it is an intellectual one.  You’ve written essays before, and this is basically just one really long essay, and the main secret to getting it done is no feat of academic brilliance, it is not dropping out. Believe it or not, the rest of it will come, and there will be that day where your biggest stress is worrying if Prontaprint bind the damn thing correctly (for your information, they got mine wrong).  If you are a rationalist, you may not like me saying this, but you have to take the completion thing as an article of faith.  It may not look like there is any way that it will ever get done, but it will.  It has happened to thousands of us thousands of times before.  We are all just as crap, and we got there in the end.

The Simple Art of Justice (a bit of silliness from 2011)

 [Inspired by Peter Ratter, an attempt to convert Platonic Dialogue into cod Raymond Chandler]

 

Thrasymachus kept his profile about as low as a wild beast about to spring.  He’d butted in before when we talked about justice, but his butt had not been welcome.  I figured it was time to let him try his hand, but I knew that his type always have a few cards up their sleeves.

 

He wanted to give his two cents, but not until he’d had his fifty dollars.  Those sophists were all the same, the only thing they like as much as a hot debate is cold hard cash.

 

“You’re out of luck buddy.  The moths in my wallet have more dimes than I do”

“That’s real classy Socrates, real classy”

 

Now I ain’t pretty, but this guy’s attitude could smash a mirror.  Glaucon came up with the dough.  No-one knows what he and his brother Plato do, but it ain’t shining shoes.  The guys had money to burn, and I could smell smoke.

 

“I got your back Socrates, now spill it Thrasymachus”

“Nice.  You gonna answer his questions for him too? Some philosopher this guy is, no answers and no bucks”

 

This was my fight, not Glaucon’s.

 

“I told you already, I know nothing.  I need big shots like you to tell me what the deal is.  What’s justice Thrasymachus?  Care to educate me and the boys?”

“The only justice round here is what the big guys want”

 

I could tell he thought he had justice on his side.

 

“So if that gorilla in the boxing ring likes beef jerky, beef jerky is just?  Real clever Thrasymachus”

“That ain’t what I mean Socrates, and you know it.”

“I told you, I know nothing”

 “Justice is whatever’s good for the suits in City Hall”.

 

He spat out the words like someone put too much soda in his scotch.

Stan’s Garden (November 2009)

This post was originally written on Facebook two and a half years ago.  Since then, Stan has passed away, and is very much missed

______________________________________________________________________

Stan and Mildred have been our neighbours since we first moved into our house just over four years ago. They live next to us in a terraced row of little Victorian pit cottages with square grey yards at the back and small neat green strips of garden at the front. Stan’s garden was always the greenest and neatest in the street, with a perfectly manicured bowling-green lawn bordered with narrow beds of perfectly regimented and colour co-ordinated bedding plants which Stan had nurtured from seed in the greenhouse on his allotment. Stan always used to make fun of me for my rather more liberal attitude to plants. Our garden was a mass of thistles when we moved in, but gradually I (slightly) cultivated it into a rather sprawling cottage garden, with native plants and the more ebullient newcomers jostling for space and climbing through each other. Hollyhocks grow up through the buddleia, and a bushy honeysuckle scrambles over the bird table. Only the odd patch is regularly weeded and cleared to make room for the herbs I use in the kitchen. Stan was amused by my ‘jungle’ which stood in definite contrast to his meticulously ordered display – any plant in his territory would face the chop if it dared to grow out of place or stick its head above knee-level. But we lived side by side very well. I respected his aversion to the kind of chaos that I embrace, and prevented any plants from creeping through the fence, and cut back any of my climbers that attempted to free themselves into the relative open space of Stan’s garden. He gave me many tips for when and how to sow, plant and prune, and I looked forward to the conversations over the garden fence. Indoors was Mildred’s territory. Stan had to remove his muddy boots before stepping into the beautifully kept house, and Mildred said that she could not understand my love of house plants. Inside was in, outside was out. Their lives, activities and roles were carefully and lovingly ordered and maintained according to this mantra.

Over the past year both of our gardens have fallen into neglect. As I got closer to my submission deadline, the PhD took over, and so did the weeds. The controlled chaos drifted out of control and plants have self-seeded into the gravel patio and the climbers and shrubs have spread their tendrils across the path. Last year, Stan was diagnosed with a rapidly degenerative form of Alzheimer’s disease. It had apparently started with the typical memory loss that is usually associated with old age, but as it became worse he went for the usual tests and scans, and Stan and Mildred were told the worst. The first change that I noticed in their garden was a perfectly neat L-shape incongruously cut out from the middle of the lawn. The turf was left on the path to the side, but I noticed Stan putting it back in its gap later the same day. Gradually more and more of the lawn was cut away, in neat geometric shapes or narrow strips, all perfectly executed, but with little sense of the overall structure that Stan had previously mastered. As time went by, there was very little lawn left. Stan continued to plant, but the neat rows would stop halfway along, or veer off at strange angles. Every day a new oddity had appeared.

Stan’s other great love was his allotment. A few months ago now Mildred quietly asked us not to mention our allotment when we were out in the garden or the backyard, in case Stan overheard and remembered that he had had one.

In the next few weeks, when the rain and wind have subsided, I will embark on the late autumn/early winter job of weeding, pruning and cutting things down to ground level, and cover the soil in a blanket of warm compost to protect the hibernating roots from the worst of the winter. The garden develops a strange austere beauty at this time of year. Red dogwood stems stick out starkly from the frozen ground, and the dried seedheads and crimson rosehips on naked branches provide a brittle kind of structural interest, quite unlike the burgeoning excesses of late summer. The appearance is almost one of sad finality, until I remind myself that everything is still there under the soil storing its energy, and that soon the tiny green shoots of the spring bulbs will be pushing up through the snow and ice to wake up the year. The freeze and the starkness is necessary. It kills all of the fungus and diseases that afflict the plants. After particularly mild winters, the following summers are disease-ridden, with yellowing failing plants. Winter gives the garden a clean slate from which to start again in the spring.

Stan never leaves the house anymore, and I suspect it will not be long before Mildred can no longer care for him at home. I miss our chats over the fence, even the later ones when he was not altogether sure who I was, but still retained a perfect knowledge of plants and gardening techniques. Last week some men from the council came and turfed over the remaining disarray, and all that there is to see now is a plain rectangle of rough green grass. The fence at the bottom of his garden blew down a couple of days ago, and hangs like a broken ribbon from its posts, letting all the dust and rubbish from the road sweep in to what had once been proudly ordered and neatly fenced off from outside.

I wish that I could do more to help, but Stan no longer deals particularly well with unfamiliar people or breaks from the routine. The house is still his home, but without the garden it is restrictive and alien to him, and Mildred cannot look after it with the loving order and routine that she used to when Stan was safely out from under her feet tending to his garden or allotment, requiring none of theconstant care and attention upon which he now utterly depends.

The role of the spaces that we inhabit is vital to who we are, not simply on some dry abstract philosophical level, but in terms of everyone’s life every day. When our lives and our minds change, so do the places that are home to us. A disease or an unwelcome personal stress bursts into our physical environments like an unwelcome intruder, making what was previously a comforting or familiar environment alien, dangerous, unfamiliar or burdensome. This is not simply to say that environment is a static epiphenomenon that represents what is going on in our lives, occasionally being changed and manipulated as a result of our inner processes. It constantly reflects us back to ourselves. It actually is part of who we are, and feeds back into the way that we understand ourselves and our roles in the world. It is an irony that while I was working on my thesis, in the last weeks spending 12 hours a day writing about selfhood and environment, my own environment was gradually creeping out of my control, a concrete instantiation of the fact that I was not my usual self. For me this is a temporary and necessary part of a process which I hope will be ultimately positive. Stan has tragically not been so fortunate.

Dream (September 2009)

I woke up in a cold sweat this morning after having dreamt I was trying to break up a very violent fight in The Angel Inn between Thomas Hobbes and St Thomas Aquinas. It should have been over some philosophical dispute about human nature, but as I recall it had escalated from an argument about the relative merits of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath (Hobbes was the Sabbath fan, but for some reason looked like Dave Mustaine).

Aquinas was using me as a (rather inadequate) human shield, and Hobbes snapped a pool cue over his knee and was threatening me to get out of the way by holding the broken end to my neck.

And that is when I woke up. Scary stuff!