Why Philosophy is best on the bus


I never thought I would be reading Bertrand Russell on the bus. Having endured a term of Critical Theory at college and made an ill-conceived investment in the accompanying reader (I was a Fresher; young and naive), I came to the conclusion that part of a Philosopher’s delight lies in deliberately employing obscure words and a surplus of relative clauses and that the general intention is to make oneself incomprehensible.

Not so with Bertrand Russell. You can read his prose while listening to snippets of conversations from the St Mary’s boys, the hum of the engine and the relentless beat of rain against the window pane.

As I was reading his essay On Being Modern Minded last week, I was struck by how much I could relate what he was saying to my own relationship to the world around me. Russell’s main argument is that the modern (post first world war) mind is stifled by an ever-increasing reliance on trends in thinking and that as a result people are scared to form their own judgements; held back by the belief that a more ‘contemporarary’ (and accepted) view will appear before they have had the chance to formulate their own.

Russell’s observations were rooted in the growing popularity of new philosophies and the tendency to impose them retrospectively on texts. Russell writes: “I read some years ago a contemptuous review of a book by Santayana, mentioning an essay on Hamlet ‘dated, in every sense, 1908’- as if what has been discovered since then made any earlier appreciation of Shakespeare irrelevant and comparatively superficial. It did not occur to the reviewer that his review was ‘dated, in every sense, 1936′”.

Russell was writing pre-Internet of course but in his world, ideas were moving more quickly than they had ever done before and at a speed that meant they were evolving before they could be fully digested. That may be why the behaviourism of the 1960’s led to some dubious parenting practices and why literary texts developed Marxist, then Freudian undertones overnight.

Our generation has the great advantage of easy access to a vast quantity of information so that any new tenet may at the click of a button be analysed in relation to the belief that preceded it. However, with such a vast amount of information available, it has become easier and easier to quit thinking for yourself.

I’m definitely guilty of this. Look at this blog post for instance: it’s Bertrand’s, not my own. Sure, we’re supposed to learn from each other but the amount of times I encounter something that seems at first glance incomprehensible and resolve to “google it” makes me uncomfortable. Am I incapable of assessing the importance of a news story myself? Can I not figure out what Joyce was about by reading his words alone? Have I lost my originality? (Can I google it?..)

Skimming is a skill I’m now supposed to teach and it’s something I’m not quite comfortable with. Sure, it’s practically important to teach students to find relevant information at speed but doesn’t that take the joy away from the ultimately satifying slog of analysing a text to death identify grammatical structures and unusual vocabulary? Would we be as well as to teach them to use google translate to extract the main points of a text?

I love the internet. It’s enabling, democratic and wonderful. Without a lot of self discipline though, it can also be disabling and anti-democratic, with messages being spread and consumned at a rate the human brain is incapable of keeping track of. If BR thought in 1950 that “The emotional tone of the world changes with equal rapidity, as wars, depressions, and revolutions chase each other across the stage. And public events impinge upon private lives more forcibly than in former days”, I don’t know what he’d think of the world as it is today. One to google ponder.

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2 thoughts on “Why Philosophy is best on the bus

  1. Totally with you. If we have a question, we google it. If something is controversial, we google. If we are looking for the latest news, we google.
    Reliance. Or overreliance. Makes people stop thinking. Isnt it?
    Today I had a conversation with a colleague. He was interviewing for a digital media journalist. Someone who is good with editorial content as well as creating online digital content. The dude actually was a copier. He (is told and then) looks for key search words and moves them around so that the text will appear higher up on the search results.
    I was like, goodness. What is the world coming to? What was the dude thinking of? Getting paid to move words around? What ever happened to the journalism spirit?….
    Any thoughts on this?

  2. I was saying earlier about a book about Google but might prove to be interesting reading but there’s another one by James Gleick called ‘The Information’ which might interest you as it seems to cover what you’re talking about (although probably in a less erudite and generally amazo way :))

    Here’s the blurb:

    James Gleick, the author of the bestsellers Chaos and Genius, brings us his crowning work: a revelatory chronicle that shows how information has become the modern era’s defining quality—the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world.

    The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanished as soon as it was born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long misunderstood “talking drums” of Africa, James Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information: Charles Babbage, the idiosyncratic inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Byron, the poet’s brilliant and doomed daughter, who became the first true programmer; pivotal figures like Samuel Morse and Alan Turing; and Claude Shannon, the creator of information theory itself.

    An then the information age comes upon us. Citizens of this world become experts willy-nilly: aficionados of bits and bytes. And they sometimes feel they are drowning, swept by a deluge of signs and signals, news and images, blogs and tweets. The Information is the story of how we got here and where we are heading. It will transform readers’ view of its subject.

    James Gleick is our leading chronicler of science and modern technology. His first book, Chaos, a National Book Award finalist, has been translated into twenty-five languages. His best-selling biographies, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton, were short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. The Information was seven years in the making. Gleick divides his time between New York and Florida.

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