‘Ren,’ says Tanja, who clearly wants to change the subject to something more deserving of her attention, ‘what do you think of the idea that you can never know yourself?’
Ren sighs. Why did Miles have to bring Tanja along? Is it because he thinks it’s nice that Tanja can talk about her pet interest, philosophy, with Ren, even though if Miles paid more attention to their discussions he’d see that what Ren says to Tanja deeply frustrates her?
Miles met Tanja, a serious blonde who is older than him, a couple of weeks ago at a function at The Tantamount, which is the main art gallery in Grayvington, where Tanja works as a curator. She’s quite artistic, but not in a good way. Miles is somewhat artistic himself, but he’s more of a traditionalist, whereas Tanja is someone who, as befits her job, always has an eye out for the latest trends. Before she arrived Ren was humming the tune to ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, wondering if Miles would get the dig, but he showed no sign of it.
Ren is not keen on Tanja, partly because she doesn’t seem right for Miles, but also because she’s another philosopher manque, and Ren has had his fill of them. Whenever he goes to parties, there’s always someone there who fancies themselves as a philosopher, and as soon as they hear Ren is a professional one, they spend all night trying to talk to him about it. Which is okay for a while if they’re someone charming and clever, who really does know a bit about philosophy, but usually they’re a bore who drones on and on with a lot of half-digested Continental crud. Ren finds it difficult to get away from such people. They buttonhole him in an intense fashion, and provide no opportunity for him to exfiltrate. One of their tricks is to say, when his glass is getting empty, ‘Let me get some more drinks for us,’ to prevent him using the excuse of needing a refill as his chance to get away.
Ren is reluctant to be rude to manques, lest he confirm the Continental view that analytic philosophers are all rude and arrogant. If it’s early in the evening he’s usually willing to spend some time with them, gently sorting them out (they rarely have any worthwhile ideas of their own), but this is usually a mistake, as it gives the manque the impression that the two of them have an intellectual bond, and the whole evening must be given over to their fascinating conversation, the distorted recount of which the manque will be boring their friends with for years to come. (The friends don’t like listening to the manque’s views on philosophy, which is why manques are so keen to talk to real philosophers.) The longer it goes on, the harder and harder it becomes to get away without causing offence, as the manque’s delusion that they’re proving their philosophical worth tonight becomes more entrenched. Sometimes offence is eventually caused when Ren starts to lose patience with his interlocutor’s ‘arguments’ – which usually boil down to one or two dubious claims which the manque is totally convinced of – which are repeated over and over as though Ren just hasn’t heard them properly yet.
It’s not just the manques who Ren doesn’t want to listen to. He’s not really that keen on discussing philosophy after work with anyone, even his distinguished colleagues (and when he does feel like it, he’d rather it be with someone good, like Compton). When you spend all day, every working day, doing the same topic, then you want to talk about something else when you go out. Especially seeing as you usually have to do some more philosophy when you get home, before you can go to bed.
It seems to Ren entirely reasonable that one would want to talk about things other than philosophy when you’ve just spent all day doing it, but as it happens almost every other philosopher is not like this. At the end of the day they can’t wait to talk some more about… philosophy. Kripke, Brandom, Unger, van Fraassen, Dummett, Peacocke… they’re interesting, but not that interesting. Too many philosophers take all this stuff way too seriously, Ren thinks. It’s not mentally healthy to be that way. They probably even dream about it. Most of it’s nonsense anyway. Why devote your whole life’s mindpower to nonsense? When you look through an old philosophy journal from a hundred years ago to see what the average paper was like back then, it’s just embarrassing. The pages of today’s philosophy journals are just next century’s recycled toilet paper.
But the ones who do philosophy 24/7 are the ones who get ahead in modern academia. The ones who network incessantly, who write articles on the latest hot topics, who go to all the conferences, who live and die by their publication counts, they’re the ones who are starting to dominate the profession now. The gentlemen, who had time to think, who had some perspective on life, are dying out. Not that they were that much better, really. They were just bad in a different way to the way the young philosophers are bad. But the young philosophers, his generation, are definitely duller. Their lameness and piousness is just too embarrassing to bear. It’s awful being in their presence for more than a few minutes. Ren avoids them socially whenever possible.
But he can see why the supernerds, as he calls them, like talking philosophy all the time. Doing analytic philosophy at the top level is like undergoing a bruising workout at the best mental gymnasium in town. Nothing else comes close, really, at least in the Humanities and Social Sciences. In History, admittedly, you need to understand a lot about how the world works, and human beings, and know an awful lot about shit that’s happened. And to do top-level Economics you need to be brainy and knowledgeable, and know maths. So maybe he’s over-egging it a little. Still, as someone once said (Will Self?), analytic Philosophy requires an extreme mental dexterity, a God-like power to understand difficult, alien concepts and views, and an ability to hold fiddly, complex, Rube Goldberg arguments in your head, like nothing else does. (Or something along those lines, although it wasn’t meant in an entirely complimentary way.)
But it also requires taking seriously, for your whole life, obviously absurd views, like scepticism about induction, or scepticism about the external world, or ludicrous attempts to deal with these ‘problems’ – philosophy has no end of ‘problems’ – like direct realism, disjunctivism, and Popper’s response to Hume. Someone who spends their whole life on absurdities is, Ren thinks, the modern equivalent of a medieval theologian.
(It’s a good thing he didn’t say, as you might have expected, ‘As those medieval theologians who spent their whole life arguing about how many angels can dance upon the head of a pin’, because no-one ever actually debated this. That was a joke. A calumny even. It never happened. In fact, medieval theologians, and medieval thinkers in general, were much more knowledgeable and sophisticated than contemporary society thinks. They didn’t believe in a flat Earth, for one thing. That the Earth is round has been known since the Ancient Greeks, and Aristotle, who worked it out himself. The ‘Renaissance’ that you learnt about at school is, apart from the great painting, mostly an exaggerated cartoon. A lot of what is attributed to the Renaissance actually comes from the medievals. So really, Ren shouldn’t have even thought ‘the equivalent of a medieval theologian’.)
Anyway, Philosophy may be a first-rate mental gym, but who, except a supernerd, wants to spend their whole life in a gym, especially one that makes you do annoying and silly exercises for forty years to build muscles that are entirely useless, and your only company is other supernerds? At least historians put their brains to use studying real events. But then he could have ended up writing about ‘Shipbuilding practices in northeastern Norway, 1485-1510’, so perhaps it’s for the best that he didn’t do History. But he’s got to get out of Philosophy. Five years, he tells himself. Five years.