I have been bruised, not to say scarred, by argumentative encounters on the internet.  I feel I can never quite match the verbal dexterity of those with whom I foolishly choose to engage.  So it was refreshing to realise that I was not alone when I read the article below, published in the Guardian, and handed round to us by our philosophy tutor, about a very public spat between two living philosophers with different views about consciousness.  

One is a tall gangly Canadaian who is a “radical externalist” – you’ll have to read the article to find out what that means.  The other is a short(er)  Northern British man and a “mysterion” who believes that there are some things that philosophy will never be able to explain, consciousness being one of them.  Both are professors of philosophy.  At the root of their animosity  may or may not be a slur about the ability of one of them to attract nice looking women delivered when both were at University College, London. 

It is the short one who is doling out the insults now, calling the tall one’s work sly, woefully uninformed, preposterous, easily refuted, pointless, excruciating.  He is unrepentent: these things need to be said.  I was reminded of some of the similar adjectives thrown at my arguments, and smiled at the suggestion that we console ourselves by drawing on the wisdom of Epictetus, a Stoic.  Suddenly all the language and the territory felt very familiar.

Epictetus’s epithets are mouthfuls of wisdom.  I consumed a whole bookful while Lola B ate scones with cream and jam after school on Thursday.  We are, for example, told that foul words are not in themselves an outrage.  We must be stoical and recognise that it is our thought that makes us angry, not the words that inspired the anger.  We can control our thoughts and hence our anger (Epictetus is big on control) and in doing so the words no longer hurt us.  Fine sentiments which I shall vainly try to ape, while secretly agreeing with the short one.

 Epictetus also gave us this gem encrusted beauty in his Enchiridion or Manual for Living.

“These reasonings do not cohere:  I am richer than you, therefore I am better than you; I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better than you.  On the contrary, these rather cohere, I am richer than you, therefore my possessions are greater than yours: I am more eloquent than you, therefore my speech is superior to yours.  But you are neither possession nor speech.”

Next time I am beset by the solipsistic sophistry where the goalposts move as soon as I’ve spotted them, I shall comfort myself by repeating that mantra: I am neither possession nor speech.

And now, here is the article which makes very amusing reading and requires no prior knowledge of the philosophical arguments regarding consciousness.  The language of the insults may appear to some as familiar, however, as the reference to Epictetus.

Enemies of thought

A very public feud between two philosophers involving damning book reviews, professional roastings and personal slights shows how bitter, unforgiving – and unwittingly hilarious – academic spats can be, says Stuart Jeffries

Friday December 21, 2007

The Guardian

“It is probably the most negative book review ever written. Or if there is a worse one, do let me know. “This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad,” begins Colin McGinn’s review of On Consciousness by Ted Honderich. “It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent.”

The ending isn’t much better: “Is there anything of merit in On Consciousness? Honderich does occasionally show glimmers of understanding that the problem of consciousness is difficult and that most of our ideas about it fall short of the mark. His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous (to use a term he is fond of applying to the views of others).”

Read the rest of the article here.

The tall one

The hard one

Advertisements