Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Distinguished Professor of Philosophy

I could spend the remainder of my days railing against that absurdity known as modern academic philosophy. Let me save us all some time and concentrate instead on one of its more fatuous examples—Professor A. C. Grayling.

I first stumbled upon Professor Grayling while he was still hacking out a career at the expense of a great man:

Once one has sifted his texts and has ceased to be dazzled by the brilliance of metaphor and the poetical quality, one finds much less argument, and very much less definiteness in the crucial conceptions, than is expected in and demanded from philosophical enquiry. This is disappointing.

I hold little hope for the present age, but I trust history will forever enjoy the irony of that assured lecture—Professor A. C. Grayling passing eternal judgment upon Ludwig Wittgenstein.

And from this noble launching pad, Professor Grayling has embarked upon a two-decade quest to define the very attributes of the word philosopher for my generation: university chairs, societal fellowships, a trenchant volume or two each year, a pleasant abode or so in the country, good food and good wine—lots and lots of good food and good wine. Do not get me wrong—it is not that Professor Grayling has been renegade in this particular form of philosophical pursuit. Far from it—there are literally throngs just like him scratching out a similar existence in all the collegial wings. But Professor Grayling has established himself at the forefront of this knowledgeable horde, primarily through means of a considerable marketing talent. For not only has Professor Grayling proven remarkably successful in bringing his message to the masses, he has indeed brought the very essence of himself to the masses, and has thereby convinced a weekend breakfast audience that the trappings of a philosophy professor’s life constitute the good life of modern perspicacity. From editorial boards to off-Broadway theater, Professor Grayling has rubbed a hair-draped shoulder against nearly every intelligentsia-favored artifact from this all too leisurely age, and the Sunday supplement public has eaten it up. Ask anyone in the know: Professor A. C. Grayling has garnered quite the following.

Well, of course he has garnered a following.

And the definiteness in crucial conception propping this mass appeal? The brilliance of metaphor and poetical qualities tugging at the heartstrings of his admiring audience? Let us sift through Professor Grayling’s dazzling arguments on the subject of death:

The fundamental question is how to deal with others’ deaths. We grieve the loss of an element in what made our world meaningful. There is an unavoidable process of healing—of making whole—to be endured, marked in many societies by formal periods of mourning, between one and three years long. But the world is never again entire after bereavement. We do not get over losses; we merely learn to live with them.

But there is a great consolation. Two facts—that the dead once lived; and that one loved them and mourned their loss—are inexpungeably part of the world’s history. So the presence of those who lived can never be removed from time, which is to say that there is a kind of eternity after all.

I admit freely to my bias: I do not belong to the Sunday Times intelligentsia, I am not one of those who are in the know, and I am not a member of Professor Grayling’s admiring crowd. For me this excerpt, along with all the rest, is pabulum I could forgive only coming from a pre-pubescent child; how am I to tolerate it off the pen of a man trumpeting his abilities to think for himself? Elsewhere in his remarks upon Wittgenstein, Professor Grayling holds forth that Wittgenstein has the distinction of being the last of a breed—history’s final example of a non-academically trained philosopher. I cannot say for certain whether this assertion of Professor Grayling’s might indeed be true, but if it is, I would note it also marks the end of an entire era—the end of all that has been creative, useful and eye-opening in the realm of philosophical thought. For there has never been, and there never will be, a true philosopher of the academic kind. When I consider the example of Wittgenstein, and the others much like him—such as Thoreau, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche—I realize a truism is at work here that would be a danger to overlook: a philosopher for the ages cannot possibly be the philosopher of his day. And, of course, vice versa.

Listen. I am just a simple man from Indiana. I cannot distinguish the good life from a good swig of beer. I have not the slightest idea what it takes to be a philosopher. But I do know exactly what it takes not to be a philosopher, and if I could just get Professor A. C. Grayling’s fat ass up on a pedestal, I could put it on display for everyone to see.

Oh, wait—he has already done it for me.


ACGrayling said...

Dear Mr Griswold. My, you are angry; but admirably eloquent; an example of how irritation can be turned to good use if disiplined by a feeling for prose. I'm not troubled by personal animus, but respond to your attack (is this what they call 'feeding the trolls'?) because I think a couple of general misdirections in your piece need addressing. First: if you would defend Wittgnestein against the stricture you quote, let us see you make a case for doing so, and not by mere railing. What I said about him is the conclusion reached after more than twenty years of studying philosophy in general and Wittgenstein in particular - so let's see: because of his reputation I should have kept my opinion to myself, or falsified what I thought? In making a judgment one invites responses that could put one right; yet you might be a little surprised to know how many people think the same - as the very enterprise of philosophy shows, now largely uninfluenced by most of what he had to say. I said what I did when it was still unfashionable to be sceptical about the degree of Wittgenstein's importance, and have been supported by the evolution of debate itself. Secondly, you quote from an essay of mine saying that the real problem of death is not one's own death but our handling of the loss of others, and how we come to terms with it. You might reflect on the question whether any skill is involved in writing on such topics for a general readership without using technicalities and prolixities, and whether the effort to convey ideas from the great tradition of philosophy into short, clear form as contributions to public debate is a misconceived one. Perhaps you think the general public has no right to participate in philosophical discussion, or to make use of its suggestions and ideas in their own thinking - and that therefore no-one should endeavour to make philosophy widely available by writing about ordinary life in accessible ways. But if you wish to challenge anyone's credentials as a philosopher you should not choose such an apparently easy target: you should tackle some 'serious' stuff - you have plenty of other books and papers of mine written for the professional debate to choose from if you want to establish - but by argument, note, not ad hominem sneers - your point. In fact, now that you have stated your view, you have a duty to back it up, and I for one would surely profit greatly from being put right by your insights. What matters is the making of a positive contribution of some kind, and one would and should always be keen to accept correction when it is rightly offered. So, offer it properly, as I've offered you the same here. My good wishes -
Anthony Grayling

Alan Griswold said...

Professor Grayling,

You seem to have confused a defense of philosophy for a personal attack upon you. As was noted, you are only an example of the philosophical type you both represent and promote, and your selection as an example was not based on any of your shortcomings but on precisely the opposite—your reputation is both well earned and well deserved. That said, there are a few of us (scant few, maybe just me) who see that philosophical type as a kind of kudzu overgrowing and choking off the landscape, and although my interest in philosophy is only tangential, I could not resist the urge to spread some herbicide.

Thank you for taking the time to reply. Speaking personally, I wish you well.

Alan Griswold