Reminiscences: Discovering Philosophy

(I actually intended to move on to discuss football, but have just discovered, quite by accident, that I had written the piece below four years ago – Why? – and had no memory of why I did so. Well, it might as well emerge from the Cave now as later.)

My undergraduate experience

I was extremely fortunate to study philosophy when and where I did. I had applied to a number of universities to read English and Philosophy, and was asked for an A grade in English; competition to go to university in those days was stiff, and the Advanced Level exams at the end of Grammar School (secondary education for ‘academic’ pupils) had very high standards. (Only 4-5% of school leavers went on to University, but it was free and we were also given a living allowance.) In the end, I got an A in French, B in English, and E in History (which I hated, but was made to study).  I was turned down by all five of my choices. However, the university of Newcastle-upon-Tyne still offered what were then known as General Degrees. Having confirmed that I could transfer to Honours at the end of my first year if I were good enough, I accepted the offer, and arrived there in the Autumn of 1964. (Exciting times: the election of a Labour Government after 13 years of Conservative rule, and the death and funeral of Winston Churchill.)

In my first General Year I took classes in English, Philosophy, and Psychology. My memory of my first Philosophy lecture is still vivid. A man who looked like the Professor in ‘Back to the Future’ came in, puffing away at a cigarette, and, without preparation or notes, proceeded to try to persuade us that our confidence that there was a world of objects external to the senses was, perhaps, misplaced. I was utterly and completely captivated. It was not just the novelty, or the intellectual excitement, but the fact that here was a subject that one could engage in immediately, without the lengthy preparation of learning the acknowledged facts. (How different from dreary History, as it was then taught, with its totally unmemorable litany of dates, battles, treaties, and Acts of Parliament.) It was love at first sight and, like most young lovers, I wanted to commit to my new love immediately. However, with what I then thought was amazing self-control, I waited for the second lecture to finish before approaching the department and saying I would like to study Philosophy as a single subject if I could transfer at the end of my first year. And so a journey of over fifty years began.

At that time the Philosophy Department at Newcastle consisted of five teachers: four full-time and one half-time – all very different from each other and yet, each in their own way, the ideal person to introduce people to the subject. The Professor and Head was Karl Britton, who had studied under Wittgenstein. Slim, neat, dapper, with well groomed silver hair, he always wore a three-piece suit and tie. We were all in awe of him, though he was a very kind man. He would ask questions with obvious answers, such as ‘how does an Intuitionist know these moral truths?’ and then look at us in bewilderment as we all thought the obvious answer could not be the correct one! He did not write a lot, but he published a book on the meaning of life while we were there. I remember writing an essay for him on that topic, in which I argued that life would only have meaning if there were objective values. He looked at me rather sadly, and said: ‘this is a fine essay, but you don’t mention death.’ To which, with all the invulnerability of youth, I replied that I had not thought it relevant.

Colin Strang taught us Ancient Philosophy – mainly Plato, because he said he did not think he knew enough about Aristotle to teach it well! So two whole years of Plato’s Dialogues. Wonderful. Tall, stringy, with a small military style moustache, he was also dapper, and chain-smoked small cigars. He would often stretch with his hands above his head, causing his trousers to slip down a little revealing a glimpse of coloured patterned shorts – something none of us then had ever seen. He would always address the members of the audience as ‘chaps’ even when a majority were women. Rumour had it that he was a communist and, when he inherited his father’s title, would become the first communist peer in the House of Lords. (I see from his obituary in the Guardian that he took up his seat but was not active. [http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/20/colin-strang ] Whether he really had communist sympathies I do not know.) Apart from an abiding love of Plato, Colin taught me to read texts closely and to argue with care. Many years after I had graduated he contacted me at Keele and said he did not think he would be publishing any more on Plato and would I like his books. He duly arrived with a large trunk full of texts and hard to find commentaries – a characteristically kind gesture.

Then there were the Midgleys: Geoff, the spitting image of the Prof. in Back to the Future, and his wife Mary, who was then half time. Colin was as untidy and unkempt as Karl and Colin were neat and tidy. He had a fine-tuned sense of the ridiculous, and made the driest philosophical topic engaging. His laugh was contagious although, because of his bronchitis from smoking, it nearly always ended up as a racking cough. He once took forty minutes answering a question and then, realizing what he had done, said: ‘You always get more than you bargained for’ and started laughing so hard and bouncing up and down in his huge shabby armchair that we feared the subsequent violent fit of coughing would finish him off. Geoff had the untidiest desk I have ever seen (though I am running him a close second!) It was piled high with not only books and papers but also parts of a flute (he played) and what looked like bits of a car engine. One day, in searching through this pile for a book he pulled out a letter, read it, and exclaimed: ‘it’s a request for a reference I haven’t answered … well, no use now, it’s two years old.’ At which point, he thrust the letter backinto the tottering pile! Geoff’s main interest was logic and early twentieth century philosophy. His final year exam on the Tractatus consisted of ten quotations from that work, with the single instruction, Comment, after each one. I once spent a whole term with him studying the Vienna Circle, especially Carnap. We thought him the smartest of a very intelligent department, but he was completely uninterested in publishing. He could not see the point. (He had, I believe, two publications, each in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, which requires publication of invited talks.) Rather, what he wanted was to dophilosophy and, above all, to introduce students to it.

Mary Midgley mainly lectured on ethics and would, in moments of intensity, close her eyes and run her hands through her hair. I remember two special incidents. The first was when, in the course of explaining why she preferred Kant’s moral theory to utilitarianism, she gave the example of an old people’s home where they had taken away people’s glasses, hearing aids, etc. and filled them full of tranquilizers, making life easier for all. Rightly shocked by this, she explained Kant’s stress on the importance of rational autonomy before apostrophizing, ‘You see, Professor Britton, life is just more complicated than you realize.’ (Karl gave the lectures on Bentham and Mill.) The other was a conversation with Colin who claimed to be both a hard determinist and a utilitarian. ‘But, Colin, it is important to people’s dignity that they be held responsible for their actions’ to which he replied, ‘I’m very happy to blame people, Mary, if it will make them happier.’ She and Geoff were cheerful and bohemian, living in a large and untidy house. Incredibly kind and caring they always had at least one angst-ridden student lodging with them, so that they could look after them. I was totally unaware at the time that Mary’s contemporaries at Somerville were Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch. When I went to stay with her later while giving a talk to the Philosophy Group in Newcastle (the department having been axed by a technocrat Vice-Chancellor) I asked her about them. She was a great admirer of Iris Murdoch’s philosophy and wished she had continued with it, instead of writing ‘those novels’, of which she had a low opinion.

Finally, there was Don Locke, the youngest and an exemplar of the new breed of philosopher. Smart casual with crew cut. Don published books and articles at a rate that would now be considered normal, but which seemed frenetic back then. His lectures were models of how to organize material and convey it in an accessible way. He was careful and punctilious almost to a fault. He once began a lecture thus: ‘There are thirteen arguments in the literature against phenomenalism, and all of them are unsound.’ And off he went, through all thirteen.

Looking back, I do not think we then appreciated how lucky we were. The staff (faculty)-student ratio was absurd. We were the largest year they ever had, their annus mirabilis, with eight people reading philosophy as a single subject (major) and eight reading it as a double major. Karl and Geoff had persuaded the university that we needed a lecture room in the department, though they had no intention of using it as such. Rather, it was a common room for both students and teachers, unsurprisingly labelled The Cave. We virtually lived in there, drinking endless coffee and discussing philosophy. We would be joined by at least one of the staff on most days, who would give their time unstintingly to our enthusiastic questioning. I felt perfectly free to knock on any door and ask a philosophical question; nor were the answers brief. I would be welcomed in and given as much time as I liked. That generosity spilled over into social life; we were often invited to parties at the houses of staff. Finally, there was the tutorial system. Two people to a tutor, taking it in turns to read an essay. Since I was often paired with students who did not show up, I received, in effect, individual supervision. Since my stay there lasted four years, this was more like a graduate than an undergraduate education; indeed, in some ways we had more access to faculty than students in most graduate programs.

This was a group of people who were widely read, thoughtful, engaged; members of an old-fashioned intelligentsia. Suffering none of the pressures of the modern publish or perish regime, they saw their mission as opening young minds and, above all, showing how enjoyablephilosophy was. Those who know me will easily guess on which person in that department I have modelled myself right down, to my chagrin, to the untidiness. When I went to Geoff’s memorial service I gave a lift to the former departmental secretary on the way back to the reception. I apologized for the hiking equipment and other detritus littering the interior. She took one look and said: ‘Geoff would have been proud of this car!’

I have only one regret, namely that I did not go there a year later for, in 1968, the department appointed a very bright chap called Mike Brearley. He did not stay long because he decided he had more to offer to cricket than to philosophy. In that he was probably right, since he went on to become the best captain England’s cricket team have ever had. I would love to have met him.

Reminiscences: Cricket

For me, as for so many other cricket enthusiasts of my age, there is one voice above all that immediately summons up a picture of sunny afternoons, white flannels, and the unmistakable sound of bat on ball. Even now, to hear the rich Hampshire burr of John Arlott transports me back half a century in a way no other sound or sight can quite match. There are other voices of course: Rex Alston, Brian Johnston, Peter West, E. W. Swanton, but none have that magic. Arlott is unique in that I can happily re-listen to recordings of his commentaries on matches of long ago. To hear him is to see again my heroes: Compton, Cowdrey, Bailey, Edrich, Dexter, Graveney, May, Barrington, Trueman and Statham, Lock and Laker, live again. No commentator I know of had that knack of conjuring up the scene by his poetic descriptions. ‘Trueman glares at the batsman and flicks back his black mane that has fallen over one eye. He begins his long walk back to the start of his run, refurling his right sleeve. A seagull soars lazily overhead. He turns, pauses, and begins that rhythmic pounding run …’. You did not have to be at the ground or be watching it on TV; the game unfolded in the mind’s eye. Some of my heroes became voices themselves, as professional pundits, asked to comment on the more technical aspects of the game. Trevor Bailey, the Mr. Jingle of cricket commentary. ‘What did you make of that dismissal, Trevor?’ ‘Good ball. Loose shot. First slip. Good catch.’ Or fiery Fred exhorting the bowler to do what he rarely managed himself, to pitch it up, and focus on line and length. And later, another Yorkshireman, Geoffrey Boycott: ‘my mother could have hit that with a stick of rhubarb.’

Given my love of cricket, it’s rather surprising to realise how very few matches I actually watched. My father took me to see the West Indies bat against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge; a display of control and elegance I never forgot. (It was on this occasion that my father seeing Sir Len Hutton, who was now writing a newspaper column, walking by went straight up to him and asked if he would shake hands with his ‘little boy’. I was so overawed that I have no idea what I said; I think I stammered something. When we got home my mother said that she hoped I had remembered to call him ‘Sir’ which threw me into guilty confusion.) I saw Brian Close memorably defy the West Indies seam attack; there were photos in the next day’s newspapers of his body covered in bruises. I went with a friend to see Kent play Warwickshire. And I saw Viv Richards destroy the bowling in a Sunday afternoon match. That is my full acquaintance with the professional game. I did, however, greatly enjoy the games between local teams at the Police Training Ground a few yards from our home. I even helped score for them once or twice. Especially thrilling were the early Sunday games, when some of my heroes came out of retirement to entertain and earn a little extra. On that tiny ground, you could really see the action close to. And that partly explains why I saw so little of the professional game. It’s very difficult, in most parts of a large county ground, to make out anything in detail.

And then Test Matches, which were what interested me most, began to be broadcast by BBC TV. Frankly, even in the early days, the view through the camera was greatly superior to what one could see at the ground. I recall Benaud bowling May round his legs. My father was convinced that it was impossible; the wicketkeeper must have knocked off the bails. But a second camera angle showed that Benaud had indeed done what seemed impossible – something one could not fully appreciate from any one angle. Nowadays one can see, in slow motion, details that even cricketers themselves had never seen before, such as the position of the seam during the flight of the ball. Of course, I never listened to the inane TV commentaries! No; one turned down the sound on the TV, turned up Test Match Special on the radio, and enjoyed the best of both worlds.

Guest Blogger: Paula Boddington

Note: Paula is a good friend and a lively, entertaining, and provocative teacher and writer. I had the privilege of teaching her many years ago at Keele. (Was I the bad or the good cop?) Paula’s style was, and is, inimitable. She always cuts to the chase.

This is taken from one of her blog posts at https://medium.com/@drboddington/on-reading-lists-in-philosophy-215a09c348ec  You will find more excellent pieces by her on that site.

Some students have asked if I can suggest more work by women philosophers to add to their course reading lists, given that on the current lists there is only a minority, and in some cases, a small minority, of female authors. Some women students feel excluded by this, and wish for more role models.

Here is my letter to you, dear students. Do not feel excluded. Simply carry on, read widely, think clearly, think independently. Read as many different styles of philosophical writing as you can find. Did you think philosophy was going to be easy? Did you think a degree from Oxford was going to be easy? Please, welcome the difficulties. These will be the making of you all.

Of course, there may be women philosophers whose work has been overlooked. And of course, in most cases, only a minority of the writers will be women, given that especially in the past, there were so few women working in philosophy. Do look around for good quality work. Because indeed, the work of many people is overlooked in universities now. The practice of cliques, of citation clubs, of ‘you cite me I’ll cite you’, of employing their mates’ favourite PhD students, continues apace, and is probably worsened by pressures on universities over the last generation to meet ludicrous, corrupting performance targets.

So for now, let me tell you a little of how I have come to think as I do on these matters, just on the off-chance that it might resonate and even help a few of you. Things in education have changed so much over the course of my lifetime, and not much of this has been for the better. But old people would say that I suppose. Experience shows that communications such as this letter from older women to younger, generally don’t go down well, but life has toughened me up, so I will continue.

I detested my secondary school. After moving from one side of London to the other aged 13, I was badly bullied at the new school — by the boys, I might add, not the girls (apart from a gang of girls who beat me up for a few months for giving them cheek, but that was later). Discipline was very lax. The headmaster ran off with one of the pupils in my year, that will give you a clue; having abolished prefects in a wave of 70s-type educational reform, they were reinstated simply for the purpose of keeping journalists from the Sun from getting past the school gates. In the sixth form, I often simply didn’t go in, and nobody noticed. I used to walk up to town, as we called it then, in other words, central London, walking for hours and hours and buying second hand books in the bookshops on the Mile End Road, or I’d go to the local library and read through the philosophy section. In many ways the school was good though — we did a load of stuff outside the curriculum, we were encouraged to express ourselves, to think for ourselves, and even, every Wednesday the head of sixth form took a dozen or so of us to the Tate for talks on modern art by some expert there. I only realised decades later how lucky we were. These days, people often make out that the seventies was a decade of bleak drabness where people just ate Findus Crispy Pancakes and wore appalling flares. This is rubbish. I saw David Bowie at the Marquee Club, for heaven’s sake. Beat that. It was great.

The school was high-achieving, yet boasted that its ‘A’ level grades had gone down, claiming that this demonstrated that the emphasis was on education for its own sake not on grades for the sake of grades. Let me repeat that in italics. The school was high-achieving, yet boasted that its ‘A’ level grades had gone down, claiming that this demonstrated that the emphasis was on education for its own sake not on grades for the sake of grades. Let me repeat that in bold. The school was high-achieving, yet boasted that its ‘A’ level grades had gone down, claiming that this demonstrated that the emphasis was on education for its own sake not on grades for the sake of grades.

The point was that people were still getting good enough grades to do what they wanted to after school, but were also getting a broader education and outlook on life. But anyway, I wasn’t quite in this group, and since I missed so much school, I just presumed I’d fail my ‘A’ levels. I remember getting some career brochures from school about joining the merchant navy, since I had a friend who was in it. But lo and behold, I passed my exams reasonably well, and after a year working firstly as a lab technician at Ilford Films, then as a shop assistant in a jeans shop in Brighton, I went to Keele University to study philosophy and physics on their four year degree course, which had a foundation year covering the whole range of subjects from every department in the university.

Oh, and by the way, I worked at Ilford Films before the equal pay act came into force. I got paid less than someone with fewer qualifications than me, simply because I was female. About 10% less in fact. The conversations around this at the time? ‘The men are expected to buy the drinks, so of course they should get paid more’. Yes, seriously. I was there at the time. I remember. Here’s another snippet of history. When I looked around for jobs after ‘A’ levels, I noticed in the ads in the local paper that the highest paid jobs were at Fords in Dagenham and I thought of applying. Like, salaries three times any other factory work (factory work existed back then). ‘Oh you can’t work there, that’s for men’, my mum said. Sadly she was almost certainly right. Although second wave feminism had already got off the ground, what we discussed was known as ‘women’s lib’. There were significant inequalities built into law and custom that have now by and large been swept away. But I was a peculiar kid, in many ways, very serious. I remember I always used to solemnly declare that I believed in ‘everyone’s lib’.

Here’s something funny, looking back. I’d read Descartes’ Discourse on the Method as a teenager, and decided that before I went to study philosophy, I should let my mind lie fallow just as he did, when he just spent all those years hanging around playing cards with soldiers. I will mention this again later. At Ilford Films, I was in charge of the enlargers in the physics research department, and when there wasn’t much work to do, I recall locking myself in the dark rooms and reading Dostoevsky. But when I was living in Brighton, in a house full of art students, I deliberately stopped reading philosophy and literature, and read only Marvel comics. Oh well.

Keele University was brilliant. In the first year, you were not allowed to take as your main subjects anything you had studied at ‘A’ level. I did philosophy and astronomy as main subjects, with short courses in electronics, political revolutionaries, and low temperature physics. And we had lectures from every department in the university, starting with the big bang, through the middle ages, up to the present day. What bliss! You were forced to mix arts, sciences, and social sciences. You were encouraged to take subjects that did not play to your strengths, in order to stretch yourself. After the foundation year, you had to take two main subjects, and two subsidiary subjects, still mixing arts and sciences. If you decided, say, to have a go at Russian or chemistry, turned out to be hopeless, and failed dismally, you could take another subsidiary subject the next year, (although it was true that you had to have passed at least one by the end of your second year). This was fantastic for encouraging an open-minded approach to education. And, in order to encourage you to broaden your horizons, although you had to pass two subsidiaries to get your degree, your subsid mark didn’t count towards your final degree classification. Not that I thought about that much in those days — I had been at Keele three years before I finally found out how degrees were classified. Remember, since I hated school so much, I’d gone there assuming that I was basically dim. But I just wanted to learn.

And here’s something else I might mention. My dad taught woodwork, metalwork, and technical drawing at the school all three of us kids also attended. His mother, Nana Min, was a teacher. He’d been brought up by her alone, after his parents divorced. She’d been the illegitimate daughter of a Victorian barmaid, brought up by some relative or other in the docks in Tiger Bay, an area so rough that when the council wanted to develop it, they renamed it the far more anodyne ‘Cardiff Bay’ (a local pub was called ‘The Bucket of Blood’). Nana Min ended up the head teacher of a girl’s grammar school in Cardiff. Dad’s elder brother was also a teacher. Dad thought women could do anything. He always told me I could do anything I wanted to do in life, that I’d succeed. My parents had both gained educations by going to night school. My mother hadn’t been allowed to take the grammar school exams, was forced to leave school at fourteen to work, and had to hand over most of her salary to her step-mother. At the age of seventeen, my mother asked if she could have a drop of tomato sauce on her dinner. Her step-mother said no. After years suffering in silence, my mother finally called her a ‘mean old cow’. As a result of this, she was thrown out of home that very day, moved to London, taught herself shorthand typing, and had the time of her life, going out dancing every night after work with friends from the nurses’ home in Chelsea where she had a room. We were all brought up with ‘get an education, get an education’ breathed into our ears from the cradle.

And here’s something else too. My sister is a professional musician. She started to learn piano when she was four, simply because our aunt moved house and didn’t have enough room for the piano anymore, so we got it. My sister sat down at it, never having seen a piano before, and started playing tunes by ear. My aunt’s piano had belonged to her father, my maternal grandfather. He and his first wife, my maternal grandmother, both used to play the piano for the silent movies at the cinema on Clifton Street in Splott. My maternal grandmother had gained a place at the Royal Academy of Music, but couldn’t afford to go. Anyway, my grandfather had been in the First World War for its entire duration, had been at the battle of the Somme, somehow surviving all this. By the 1920s, more or less everyone was out of work, the family had split up, and his sister, my Great Aunt Kitty, was unemployed, living alone in one room, looking after my grandfather’s piano for him. In those days you couldn’t get any dole money if you had anything of value to sell. The dole office, whatever it was called then, went round to visit her to check. ‘You’ve got a piano, you can sell that,’ they told her. ‘That’s not my piano, that’s my brother’s piano, he served this country in the trenches for five years, and you’re not getting it,’ she said, whereupon she picked up the hatchet she used for chopping wood for the fire and chased the hapless official down the street. They never got that piano. In the end, we got it. And that, dear readers, is how come, although my poor maternal grandmother never made it to the Royal Academy of Music, my lucky sister made it to the Royal College of Music. Sometimes you have to fight for what you have. Sometimes, the previous generations have done the fighting for you. Never forget that.

And I recall making a deliberate decision when I arrived at Keele. Since I was convinced that I was not very bright, I presumed it didn’t matter too much what my tutors thought of me, and I decided that if I didn’t understand anything, I’d simply ask. If I thought something, I’d simply say it. That way, I’d learn more. Maybe I partly got that idea from reading Descartes when I should have been at chemistry practical, who knows. So I just kept asking questions. In one tutorial, for instance, apropos of I can’t remember what, the lecturer asserted that two distinct objects could not occupy the same space at the same time. ‘Why not?’ I asked, and he gave me one of his most withering looks. (His withering looks could kill a small child, an invalid, or an elderly person at 50 paces.) But he couldn’t answer me. And I had somehow survived the withering look treatment. So I just kept on asking similar questions.

So what do you think happened? In the second year, I started studying philosophy and physics as my majors, and one day in June, as I crossed campus towards the philosophy department to get the exam results, a girl in my class came up to me shaking her fist and laughingly saying, ‘I hate you Paula Boddington’. Luckily she wasn’t being entirely serious. She was just annoyed with me because I’d come top of the year. Exam results were posted in public in those days, typed-out lists on a board. I went to check. Amazingly, she was right, and I sloped off back to my room, somewhat embarrassed. Perhaps there was a connection with not caring if my tutors thought I was saying something daft. Maybe it was a good way of learning.

I’d done pretty well in the foundation year philosophy course as well, particularly logic. Logic was graded throughout the year on effort, and only graded on achievement in the end of year exam, another brilliant piece of pedagogy. I wasn’t one of those real complete and utter logic whizz kids, but I was such a geek in general, I loved logic so much that I used to save my logic homework to do on Sundays for a treat. But often I couldn’t wait, so on Sundays I just did extra logic. Because I’d always handed in my homework and had it marked well in advance of the other students, they used to borrow my homework to see where I’d gone wrong, crib it all, and get the answers all right with ticks all over the place, unlike mine which had quite a few ticks but also some crosses. But … it was marked on effort, so because I was always prompt with my homework and did loads of extra exercises, I was the one who got really high marks for the coursework. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. And in the exam, despite having made far more mistakes than my friends throughout the year (or actually, you will realise, because of it), I did extremely well. I will spare you the insult of spelling out the lesson to be learned here.

By the way, taking logic is a superb way to overcome any doubts about your ability, because once you get it, you know for a fact that you are completely right. There’s nothing like that to boost any wavering confidence. And you can get far higher exam marks than in any other philosophy subject. Also, others tend to think that you have the keys to some magic kingdom or something, if you find logic manageable, which is kind of fun as well.

The lecturers were all men, in both philosophy and in physics. So here’s a comparison — the philosophy department realised I was good at the subject, and encouraged me. By ‘encouraged’ I mean, ‘asked me increasingly difficult questions in class’. That’s how you improve. There were plenty of ‘hard as nails’ tutors there. The final year special subject I took, Metaethics, was taught by two lecturers who basically did a ‘nice cop nasty cop’ routine. (If by any faint chance either of you are reading this, You Know Who You Are.) Tutorials could be intellectually brutal. In all this, though, it never even crossed my mind that being a woman made any difference.

But in physics, it was a completely different kettle of fish. There I experienced the kind of old-fashioned sexism that I hope no longer exists. There were two of us girls in the lab class (okay, I know some people reading this will wince at the word ‘girls’ but that’s what we all called ourselves), Lynne and me. In class, Dr L (I thought about naming this twerp but decided against it, because if he’s still alive, he’s very old, he may have many other good qualities, and it seems hardly fair) used to walk around the lab and announce to everyone, ‘let’s see how Lynne and Paula are getting on’ as if it was some kind of joke. ‘Oh, look, Lynne and Paula got an A- for their lab report last week, how did you manage that girls?’ he’d say. He’d come up behind me and tweak my blouse (which was always hanging out because I’ve got a long back and am generally untidy). I kind of knew that our marks were pretty good, but at the same time felt completely undermined. There was a special maths class for those who had not done ‘A’ level. Because of how Keele worked, where you could choose your main subjects after the foundation year, it was one of the few places where you could take physics without maths at ‘A’ level, and they put on the relevant maths classes for us — about half the year group. I was the only girl in that class. I forget the lecturer’s name. But at each stage of the proof, he would stop and say, ‘Did you understand that, Paula?’ If I did, he’d go on, if I didn’t, he’d explain more. It was like I was the lowest common denominator for the whole class, the canary in the coal mine.

You know what? It never occurred to me, at the time, that he was doing this because I was female. I thought it was because I was the worst maths student in the class — remember, this was completely different to how the philosophy department treated me, so I assumed it was because of my performance in physics. I thought that he must have got some report from my school, which confirmed that I was not very good at maths, and that was why he singled me out. It was only a few years later, when I started a lecturing post, that I realised this could not possibly be true. He simply was prejudiced me against me, the only female in the class.

But what happened was that I started sinking into despair. Not because the work was too hard. Not because we were studying Maxwell’s equations and Plank’s constant and Schrödinger and Einstein and Newton and they were all men. But because this utter creep made me feel like shit, I thought I couldn’t understand anything, even though I generally got reasonable marks, I had a feeling I couldn’t possibly really understand, and I was so naïve I assumed there was something wrong with me.

So I got very depressed, and simply stopped working at physics, for week after week. Again, as at school, I thought I’d fail, and asked if I could change subjects. Eventually I got an appointment with the senior tutor. It was the day before the physics exam. He told me that I could change subjects, but only if I passed physics, not if I failed. I went back to my room, and waited for my friend Angey to get back, then told her the situation. I waited for Angey as I knew she’d stop me panicking. She made me tea and toast while I did nine hours revision, after weeks of not working. (Angey is still my friend, by the way, and I am godmother to her eldest daughter.) And, I got a good 2i mark, with close to perfect marks in the bits I found easier, like relativity and quantum mechanics, although a lot worse in electromagnetism. But that didn’t change my complete lack of confidence. To this day, I plan to study a physics degree when I’m retired. I reckon the older I am, the more they will know, so the better value for money it’ll be.

So I changed to psychology, meaning that I had to do five years altogether, starting psych in my third year and taking an extra subsid, theology, to make up some hours. And that’s my next interesting bit of this story. Well, it’s interesting to me, you might be bored rigid by now.

But first, a small digression. I bumped into Dr L in the Sneyd Arms in Keele village one evening in my third year, a few weeks into starting psychology. He looked at me, surprised, and asked me why I was still hanging around. He actually thought I’d just dropped out of Keele altogether. I mention this as I recall, even now, his patronising tone and the feeling of shamed indignation that he could even think this. I’d come top of philosophy! And he thought I’d just piss off and drop out of uni because he tweaked the back of my blouse in lab class! DLTBGYD.

In the second year of psychology, (that is, in my fourth of five years at Keele), one of the units I chose was biological bases of psychology. For each unit, you had to do one essay and one experiment, but it was pretty impossible to do an experiment for this unit, since no one was going to give you permission to administer hormones to anyone, let alone give them a lobotomy, etc etc. Generally then, students did two essays, but two of us, Sue and I, were given the choice to help out with a research project Corinne Hutt was doing.

Corinne Hutt had a research post in the department and specialised in psychological sex differences. It was interesting times. The predominant view among political activists was to lean very heavily towards socialisation as the root cause of psychological sex differences, or to deny or diminish any measurable differences, but Dr Hutt had an open mind as to what differences existed and whether some differences might be innate or biologically based. Well, scientifically, having an open mind was the only really valid perspective really, especially given the scant nature of our knowledge of the brain, of genetics, of hormones, and the great difficulty of conducting fool-proof research on the topic. She told us that she used to get people coming up to her at conferences, shaking their fists and saying, ‘I hate you!’ all because she was doing research to try to find out what the truth is, and because she thought some differences might be biologically based. But she said to me that she did this in order to help women and girls. One possible view around was that boys had a greater mathematical ability, girls had a greater linguistic ability. (Although, it was clearly known even then, that the bell-shaped curves for all such variables showed mostly massive overlap between the sexes.) ‘If it turns out that girls are really not so good at maths as the boys, maybe if they learn maths differently, we need to find out so we can find ways of teaching them better so they can achieve more’, Dr Hutt explained to us. Makes sense actually. Not to mention, vice versa.

Now at this point, I will backtrack slightly. The first school I attended was a girls’ school. That was indeed, one factor behind our move, because my parents were very much in favour of coeducation, and mixed sex grammar schools were very rare at the time. (Comprehensives hadn’t come in just yet.) I particularly loved science and in fact, I went on to do three science ‘A’ levels. At the girls’ school, this just wasn’t any kind of issue. But at my second, mixed sex, school, girls who did science stood out. The bully boys tended to think you were weird. There were very few of us who did physics or chemistry. I think my friend Damyanti was the only other girl who also did all three science ‘A’ levels, despite the fact that, at the time, our school had the biggest sixth form in the country.

The project Sue and I worked on was looking at attitudes towards future career ambitions and to subject choice, comparing mixed and single sex schools in Stoke-on-Trent, the nearest city. The point was to see if we could find any evidence of socialised gender-related influence. These schools were all in very working-class areas. Ambitions leaned heavily towards working in the nearest pottery, with of course the occasional astronaut and footballer. We designed a survey and also interviewed some of the kids and a couple of the teachers. It turned out that this small pilot study was the first such study on the social effects of stereotyping in schools, to indicate that single sex education works better for girls, but mixed sex education works better for boys. The girls in the single sex schools had a far broader view of subject choice, and a far more ambitious set of career choices, than those in the mixed schools. It did seem as if the presence of the opposite sex cemented a stereotyped and diminished view of what life and subject choices were suitable for girls.

The work was never fully published, sadly. Corinne Hutt died of an asthma attack, in the prime of life, later that year. One small preliminary paper came out of it, but a lot of other subsequent work by others continued to explore this theme. There did indeed seem to be large social effects on how ambitious school kids are. But the boot’s on the other foot now; the group doing worst at school and at university is now that of white working class boys. Never forget this: if the effect is indeed, socially influenced, it will be complex and full of nuance and variation, but it can change. It can change extremely rapidly. It can turn around in a generation or less. And it can also be the subject of individual differences, and individual will power. Never, ever forget this.

Corinne Hutt’s attitude of open-minded inquiry and openness to the question of the existence, degree, nature, and cause of sex differences, her investigation into both biological and social factors, has always stayed with me, perhaps all the more vividly because of her early death and her loss to science.

Yes, there were times of discouragement. The head of the philosophy department at Keele told me I didn’t have a chance of getting into Oxford for postgraduate work. I just proved them wrong. But I somehow believed two things at once. After he told me that, ‘Let’s get this straight, Oxford is out of the question, because you need a first for that, and a first isn’t quite on the cards’, I just went back and checked through all my essay marks. This is another example, like logic, where the maths gives a sense of certainty. My essay marks over the years averaged well over a first. I had got 93 for my last essay. Here was my proof he was bullshitting. Nonetheless, I became so dismayed, yet again, that I recall struggling in the run up to finals, crossing campus through wind and rain (Keele is Mud Central) to see a counsellor to wail that I was going to fail my degree. ‘You won’t FAIL’, she told me. ‘Oh no, that’s right, I won’t fail,’ I realised. ‘I should be able to get at least a third.’ That cheered me up enough to keep going. As it happened, when the results were pinned to the notice board, lo and behold, being a ‘B’, there was my name at the top of the list. I’d got a first. After a long journey of discouragement, encouragment, naivety, and love of learning. The department backtracked, boasted about me, and I got into Oxford with a late application. But you know what? If I’d got a 2i, in many ways, I’d have had more career options. Going down the academic route greatly funnelled and constricted work opportunities. You Just Never Know.

I wanted here to talk mostly about my time as an undergraduate, to make it relevant to you students, but I include a bit extra to try to say something of the plurality of issues that might crop up. The year after finishing the BPhil, as I started my DPhil, I also started working part time as a lecturer in the philosophy department at Bristol University. I was the first woman ever employed in that department. The previous professor, Stephan Körner, had notoriously told colleagues that he would not have a woman working there. So, after he retired, they appointed a woman as soon as they could. I must admit I was stunned when I got the job. Doing the BPhil was extremely scary; lots of people failed, and so was a good way of spending two years beating yourself over the head with the fear that you are not good enough. But I passed quite comfortably, then getting a lecturing post was a fantastic feeling.

But then a colleague told me as soon as I arrived, ‘we gave you the job because you were a woman’. He’s a very nice, well-meaning chap, and I think he meant to indicate to me that the department was full of right-on types who were on the side of women.

They were, on the whole. I’d been told that I could teach anything I liked, ‘so long as you consider it academically respectable’. I was asked to teach feminist theory, for instance, because the students were asking for it, and the men were all too scared to teach it. So I produced a finals paper in this topic, scouring far and wide for the literature. (Nothing online in those days. Online didn’t even exist, of course.) There was one colleague who was insufferable, who called me ‘our little girlie’, and ‘silly goose’. He used to dart down the corridor ahead of me and hold the door open, so that when I said, ‘Thank you’, and walked through the door, he could berate me for being anti feminist for letting a man hold the door for me. This led to the most ludicrous farce, whereby, whenever we were both in the corridor at the same time, there’d be an unseemly race as I sprinted to beat him to hold open the door. Yep. (I usually won.) That’s what a few people were like in those days. Moronic. But then, he was horrible to most people, so I didn’t take it too personally.

And one day, he finally pushed it too far. Just before the weekly seminar with a visiting speaker was starting, he came up to me in the tiny kitchen, thrust a dirty mug at me, and said, ‘wash this up’. I said, ‘wash it up yourself, Edo’. ‘Huh!’, he replied, ‘just goes to show what a hypocrite you are. Feminists believe in equality. I would have washed your mug up for you, yet you won’t wash my mug up for me, so you don’t really believe in equality, so you’re not a proper feminist’. Needless to say, I had never seen the slightest evidence that he ever washed up a mug for any living creature, male or female. After years of this kind of crap, I snapped something along the lines of, ‘Oh piss off Edo’. At that point, he ran downstairs and into the seminar room, where the entire department, plus visiting speaker, plus people from other departments, were gathered. Edo had his nose in the Times Higher Education Supplement already, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

I lost it. I told him, ‘I just want you to know, Edo, that I am not a “silly little goose”, and I am not “your little girly”, and that it’s utterly obnoxious working in the same department as you’. Then I ran out in shame and confusion, dashed home, got into bed and cried, convinced that I had blotted my copybook with the department once and for all by losing my temper in public.

But then what happened was marvellous. After two or three hours, when the seminar was over, one by one, my colleagues telephoned me to congratulate me. One, I recall, was laughing so much he could hardly speak. Another, the chap who told me I’d got the job because I was a woman, had had to go out to a phone box to make the call, as his own phone was broken. They were all thrilled that I had finally stood up to this bully, who, as I said, was pretty awful in general. Nobody had had the guts to do this before. (Although in my case, it wasn’t guts, it was a bad temper.) So was he singling me out because I was a woman? Or was it just a convenient handle for his general dislike of the human race? Maybe a bit of both.

But after I was told, right at the start of what would become ten years at Bristol, that I’d been given the job because I was female, I was completely devastated. It took me years, maybe decades, to forget his words. Don’t for a minute think that this means that I suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome’ though; if anything, the batterings of the passing years have not so much rounded off my corners as sharpened me into a position of wilful arrogance — I think I am undervalued and that I should have been a professor years ago. Still, too late now. I have always been passionately against positive discrimination. It means that anyone in the protected group will have no idea if they merit their achievements. Any women philosophers added to reading lists because they are women will suffer from this too. And I know, to my cost, what that feels like.

I could literally write a book about the difficulties and obstacles in an academic career. In fact, one day I may do so. I realise that these are going to be different for different people, and that these difficulties will include both what others do, what you yourself do, and how you interpret what is happening. I do think that there are many ways, much of them subtle, in which being female created obstacles; and many of obstacles are handed out indiscriminately, or in ways in which might affect women disproportionately, while not explicitly targeting them, and in which others are also included. People who are shorter, and not so good looking, don’t have a great time career wise on the whole either, remember. The Difficult Chap in the Bristol philosophy department reserved particular venom for me because he ‘accused’ me of being a ‘feminist’; not that I would deny this, but he was simply reading things onto me, and labelling me a ‘feminist’ because I’d been asked to teach feminist theory … by a man … who asked me because all the men in the department were too frightened to do so. But of all the many and various challenges I encountered, I honestly don’t ever think that, for me, the fact that most of the philosophers I read were men, or even, that most of those who taught me were men, was one of those challenges.

And that is probably to do with how I approached reading philosophy. Or maybe, how I approached reading anything. It’s quite possible that I am peculiar in this, I don’t know. I recall being stunned when hearing from some Eng. Lit. friends their views about ‘identifying’ with characters in fiction. Or possibly I heard this in a lecture, I’m not sure. (I started a subsid in English, but dropped it after a fortnight, when one of the lecturers said that the point of literature was to ‘portray the misery of human existence’. I’d already read all the books anyway, so I swapped to computer science.) The point was about the difficulty of ‘identifying’ with characters if they were male. Well knock me down with a feather. It had never even crossed my mind. I had murdered the money lender with Raskolnikov, (from time to time, I still have nightmares that I’ve killed someone and forgotten about it), I had travelled around with Holden Caulfield, I had schemed with Julien Sorel, I had sat on the balcony with Meursault eating eggs and looking into the street. Wasn’t I meant to? It’s true, I had not identified with some, such as David Copperfield, but this simply meant that either I thought they were utter wimps, or else I just didn’t like the book much. I thought, if a character is well written, one sees the world through their eyes. Isn’t that the point of literature? Was I meant to find this harder, if the characters were not women? Of course I could identify with Jo Marsh. But Amy? Euch. I liked Beth though, although my sister hated her. George from the Famous Five? Of course. But Anne? For goodness sake, no! Elizabeth Bennet? Of course. Lydia — get lost! Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Well kind of. But what were her parents thinking of in the first place? Likewise, I couldn’t remember ever consciously considering if the author was male or female. I would just open a book and fall into it.

And what is the point of philosophy if not to think of the world through the thoughts of another? In reading philosophy, I adopted the attitude of firstly reading the text with as much sympathy for the author’s view as possible, trying to get inside the author’s head. Maybe I’d first started out on this track when I had borrowed Descartes from Wanstead public library when I was fifteen, and taken him so literally. It’s much easier to criticize philosophy negatively than positively, to say what is right about it. And criticising philosophy negatively can often be little other than ill-informed nit-picking, rather than anything that really gets to grips with what is going on. So if asked, I generally tell students that first, read just trying to get inside the author’s head. Then read it again, only this time more critically. Then read it again, if need be. Then again.

In such an approach, I felt completely comfortable in reading philosophers regardless of who they were as people; regardless that most of them were men; because it involves a stretch into their minds, into their worlds. They are all so peculiar, anyway, in the main, and so different from each other, to a man, or the occasional woman, that the mere fact that their sex usually differed from mine never even occurred to me, and once it had been noted, it seemed mostly neither here nor there. (Indeed, come to think of it, qua men, historically at least, most philosophers are … well … bloody hopeless with women. `nuf said.) Their writings are offerings from out of radically different other minds, whispering to us through history, continuing into the present. Reading philosophy is an act not just of intellectual endeavour, but of humanity, even for those, especially for those, whose own humanity seems to be made of the most crooked of crooked timbers. Just draw up a chair by the fireside, put a pot of tea to keep warm by the hearth, imagine that Descartes is no longer alone in his stove-heated room, but that you are there with him, and try to listen and understand.

Life is full of choices. Fate, or God or whatever, also has a sense of humour. Want to hear something ironic? Not long ago, I was shortlisted for a lecturing post that involved teaching feminist philosophy, as well as ethics. But the interview date clashed with my son’s graduation, and of course I’d already promised him I would go. The interview panel could not meet at any other time. ‘It’s your choice’, I was told. It’s not a ‘choice’, I explained. I have a pre-existing commitment to my son. This is not a ‘choice’. (These people wanted someone to teach ethics, they don’t know what a commitment is, and suddenly everything is ‘choice’???) This was a job teaching feminism, and I literally had to decide, career or family. I chose my son, of course. He’ll be bringing me bowls of soup when I have no teeth left. My colleagues won’t be.

I wasn’t very well for much of the time that I was at Keele. I had a very bad reaction to my BCG (anti-TB) vaccination, and in my penultimate year, I ended up having to take TB medication for ten months, which is a gruelling treatment with appalling side effects. I had to traipse off to a particular chemist in Newcastle-Under-Lyme who got my meds in for me, as TB was so rare, and he looked at me with gut-wrenching pity every time I went to fill a new script. My pee turned scarlet, I was so exhausted I slept about twelve hours a night, I had to keep a towel by the side of my bed to wipe myself down from night sweats, and I had terrible difficulty in keeping any food down, so much so that my BMI went down to about 17. The doctors were very cagey about whether I actually had TB, but a recent CT scan did in fact show up TB scarring on my lungs. Yet, to date, not one composer has written an opera about me. (That is a joke.)

I say this to you dear students, not to brag about what I achieved despite this, nor to feel sorry for myself, but to encourage you. There are lots of barriers in the way, lots of unfairness in who gets encouraged and discouraged, and lots of ways in which one can discourage oneself without good reason. Some people have obstacles that no one else can see, that even they can’t see. Some people have barriers that turn out to be great opportunities. Some people have barriers that turn out to be barriers. In my experience, life is not a sprint, nor even a marathon. It is a blindfold egg and spoon race around an obstacle course, albeit one where from time to time, you can take a break for tea and sandwiches, only to start again, even if you’ve dropped and smashed your egg, sometimes where you left off, sometimes back a bit, sometimes skipping a part of the course. Remember, ‘The second mouse gets the cheese’. The thing is, simply to continue the course, although the other trick is to work out when to take a breather.

Be like Great Aunt Kitty. Run down the street with a hatchet. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

And, as Wittgenstein once said, ‘In philosophy, the winner of the race is the one who can run most slowly. Or: the one who gets there last’.

Stories

I came across this passage in Moore’s autobiography in the Schilpp volume fairly early in my career. It exactly captures my experience, including my inability to understand those who find no difficulty in doing academic work.

“I cannot claim that during this period I worked very hard, nor perhaps as hard as I ought. Indeed I do not think that for any considerable period of my life I have ever worked very hard, except perhaps for four or five years while I was at school. The fact is that, by disposition, I am very lazy; and there is almost always something which I would much rather be doing than working: more often than not, what I would much rather be doing is reading some novel or some history or biography – some story, in fact; for stories, whether purporting to be true or avowedly mere fiction, have a tremendous fascination for me. The consequence is that I have always been having to struggle to force myself to work, and constantly suffering from a more or less bad conscience for not succeeding better. This state of things seems to me so natural, that I find it difficult to believe that it is not the same with everyone; and if it were the same with everyone, it would not be worth mentioning – it would go without saying. But I have met with facts which seem to me to suggest that, unintelligible though it may seem, there are some people who don’t need to struggle so hard to make themselves work as I do, and are not so constantly or strongly tempted to do something else. Perhaps such people form only a small minority; but, if there are any of them at all, it is perhaps worth mentioning that I have never, since I grew up, been one of them.”

Moore continues: “Certainly during those six years [of his Fellowship at Trinity] I spent a very great deal of time in reading novels and in talking to friends. But a good deal of the time spent in the latter way was by no means without profit for my philosophical work.”

Moore, Autobiography, 24-5

I have only one quarrel with what Moore writes here: surely reading novels can itself be philosophically fruitful, in two ways. First, for moral philosophers, novels can provide rich examples and insights, far removed from the fatuous examples of philosophers involving runaway trolleys, drowning nephews in the bath, pushing big red buttons that will kill x number of people rather than y, and so on. Second, at bottom, all philosophical systems appeal to a certain, usually rather simple, picture of the world and our place in it. Some philosophers like their worlds uncluttered and austere; others populate it with strange entities, including numbers, possible people, universals, and the like. But whatever picture underlies the philosophy, to make it attractive one needs to tell a story: a narrative that shows how this view explains everything, leaves nothing out, and makes sense of the phenomena. Reasoning and logic come into the construction, of course, but in the end a plausible philosophical view is one with a compelling narrative. Just as in the classic novel form, we do not want loose ends, inconsistencies, and so on. But we can have all that and, if the story lacks appeal to that reader, they will reject the philosophical viewpoint as unsatisfying.

 

Trees

As many of you will know, Tolkien was a great lover of trees. Indeed, he had a favourite tree in Magdalen College Botanical Gardens, that became known as ‘Tolkien’s tree’. Earlier writers shared this passion. Here are three quotations I came across from the blog Brain Pickings.

In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him. (Thoreau and the Language of Trees)

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Artwork by Bryan Nash Gill from his book ‘Woodcut.’ 

In similar vein:

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night. (Walt Whitman, Notebooks)

UK readers will remember the TV series (episodes on YouTube) that resulted in a splendid book, Meetings with Remarkable TreesPakenham

As the title of Pakenham’s book suggests, and as any reader of Tolkien will immediately recognise, it seems especially natural to personify trees, and even the forest as a whole. As we have recently discovered trees are connected by fungi and respond to messages from each other. For more on this, and on trees, see Judi Dench’s love of trees: Dench

Walking, Wilderness, and the Wild

On one of my first visits to the United States, I spent a few days in Yosemite. After walking a couple of miles along a trail, I came to a sign that read along these lines. ‘So far the walking has been fairly easy, but now it becomes more difficult. Are you ready for The Wilderness Experience.’ There are, of course, some pleasing ironies in such a sign. The use of the word ‘experience’, usually employed in advertising the most artificial of constructed environments: the Disney experience, the Smithsonian experience, and so on. Following a well sign-posted man-made trail in order to have the wilderness experience. (A little further on, another wayside pulpit advised the awed traveller to ‘Close your eyes. Listen carefully. What can you hear? Nothing. This is the sound of silence.’) But what struck me most was the use of the term ‘wilderness’. Nothing in Britain, or perhaps even in the whole of Europe, could really be described as wilderness. Wild places there certainly are: the English Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, the Alps, but none of these can properly be called wildernesses. Why? Because the mark of humans is everywhere. Years ago I saw a TV series on the British landscape; the programme on Sutherland showed that it had originally been forested, but bronze and iron age peoples had hewed the trees for fires and for smelting, thus dramatically and ineradicably altering the landscape.

The USA, by contrast, does have genuine wilderness (despite the Park Authority’s attempt to Disnify Yosemite). Yosemite, apart from a few lodges and camp grounds, probably differs little from the way it appeared to Lewis and Clark. The nomadic aboriginal peoples lived off the land in a way that left few marks. Whereas, in Britain, people have for millennia, settled all the available land, hewing forests, redirecting streams and rivers, quarrying, mining, farming, urbanising. In all these respects, then, the wild upland places of Britain only superficially resemble the genuine wilderness of the American West, or of Alaska. The lover of mountains, valleys, waterfalls, lakes, and crags can appreciate both, and may perhaps appreciate both in the same way. But that need not be so; my appreciation of the Lake District or the mountains and lochs of Scotland is suffused with an awareness of the long and intimate relationship between humans and the landscape, which has profoundly affected both.

In an earlier post, I mentioned a moment of epiphany when I first read Wordsworth’s Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey. The context could scarcely have been less auspicious. It was Christmas Day in Athens, Georgia, and I was suffering from bona fide influenza and running a temperature. I was on an exchange visit to the University of Georgia; looking round the house of the people I had exchanged with for something to read, I came across the Norton Anthology of English Poetry. Despite my distaste for some of Wordsworth’s poetry, fomented no doubt by an unfortunate choice of his poetry during my school years, I determined to give him another go, and the poem I alighted upon was Tintern Abbey. The whole poem was a revelation and a delight, but these famous lines, in which Wordsworth describes the change in his appreciation of nature as he moved from boy to adult, encapsulated my own experience in a way that has never found better expression.

While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, not any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
   ‘The still sad music of humanity’ – that is not, and cannot be, what we escape to wilderness to find, but it is something one can find in the ‘cultivated wildness’ of Cumbria and remoter parts of Britain. While both wilderness and wildness appeal, it is the latter that moves me most emotionally. The skeletal form of the bare mountains, the mines and quarries that pock their surface, the stone walls that climb up and down their flanks, the pastures and hamlets, lime kilns and mill races that strew the valleys, the lakes that have been artificially increased to feed the thirst of Manchester – all these are an integral part of fell-walking. They do not deface nature, but blend with it, uniting humans and nature.
   For some writers, this is not the case. Thoreau, for example, in Walking, describes his wish to escape from all signs of cultivation.
Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. … My spirits infallibly rise in proportion to the outward dreariness. Give me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness! … Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape.

There is here, perhaps, a touch of misanthropy – a dislike of humanity and all its works. This is totally absent from Wordsworth’s poetry. It is not, I think, an accident that Wordsworth, the poet who describes the old Cumberland beggar and the leech gatherer, also wrote sonnets that were a paean of praise to London.

Courtesy

In the light of a number of recent postings and discussions on Facebook, I have pondered whether to make a general comment about courtesy, and the lack of it, in the profession. On the one hand, this could just be moral grandstanding on my part, as Brandon Warmke has warned us. But if it makes some difference to someone somewhere, then it will have been worth it.
   When I first became a professional philosopher, exchanges were often fairly aggressive, manifesting more of a desire to score a point than to aid the speaker in improving the paper. Of late, or so it seems to me, the tone at colloquia and conferences has become more collegial and helpful – a very desirable change.
   However, there have also been outbreaks, on social media and elsewhere, of what I can only describe as, at worst, vicious personal attacks or, at best, thoughtlessly hurtful remarks. I expect I am not alone in having occasionally made snide comments about other philosophers in private conversations: something that I regret. However, snide and hurtful comments made in the public arena are another, and much more serious matter. I think it is easy (at least I have found it so) to think of what is posted on Facebook and elsewhere as merely an extension of a private chat that happens to encompass a rather wider audience. A moment’s reflection shows that this is false. Remarks posted here are PUBLIC. Even if they are not addressed to all, they can be easily disseminated to others.
   I would hope that we can do better than being merely courteous to each other; we should be friendly and supportive. But we should, AT LEAST, be courteous, especially in social media. Not only will good people be deterred from being philosophers, but those who have started out on the professional path are especially vulnerable to sarcasm, snarkiness, and worse. For many years I was unpublished, comparatively unknown, and consequently suffered from imposter syndrome (as it is now called). People in that position desperately need support and encouragement. I was lucky to get it, but one remark can cut deep. (In my case, it was a rejection letter, which I can still remember, which read, in part: What you say on p. xx is little short of disastrous. No explanation.)
   What is to be done? One obvious thing that established members of the profession, whose careers are secure, can do is to make clear to offenders that such behaviour is completely unacceptable. More needs to be done, and should be done. But this is something many of us can do without waiting for systemic changes.