Sunday, August 11, 2013

A philosophy of illusion

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, surveys

John Gray probably didn't set out to survey the field of philosophy when he began writing The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. But in the end, he surveyed the field pretty well. The book's title comes from an extended quote by Max Picard, which begins, "The silence of animals is different from the silence of men." The excerpt goes on to speak of the "heavy" silence of animals, "like stone." Gray quotes Picard only to disagree with him, focusing instead on the human desire for silence that cannot be achieved, because we are so noisy inside.

I wonder if silence-seeking has any hold at all on the modern generations. It seems there is no ear upon the street that does not have an earbud stuffed into it. I was recently asked by a young friend why I am never seen listening to music. I replied, "I have a constant sound track running in my head." She nodded thoughtfully, knowingly: I am a songwriter, though I am not prolific, and it takes me years to write a single song. Regardless, there is music enough in me to fill many lifetimes. Perhaps the inner sound track of most folks is not so melodious as mine, and must be drowned out with the contents of one's iPod.

But Gray's point is not silence or its lack anyway. It is to show that progress is a myth we must tell ourselves in order to have a reason for going on. Perhaps the couch potatoes have it right. Perhaps they realize, dimly though they may see, that passively taking it all in is better than the "striving after the wind" of which Solomon wrote.

In three long chapters that weave together 20-plus threads, Gray demonstrates from every angle that we cannot live without myths, because the intake of our senses is so illusory. He rightly notes that science represents our striving to extend our senses and make them more reliable. Thus, to replace our feeling that this thing is warmer or cooler than the other, we have a series of thermometers that cover various ranges from absolute zero upward, even to the thousands or millions of degrees (or more) that exist (thankfully) in distant spaces. He cares little for science, and equally little for experience. It is hard to determine just what he might be, as I find no positive statement in the book.

Reading it motivated me to gather a short list of the "more major" philosophical trends, selected only in that they could be distinguished from one another in my own mind:
  • Presocratic philosophy (actually, there were several, but they get lumped as one these days)
  • Academical philosophy
  • Cynicism
  • Stoicism
  • Scepticism
  • Neoplatonism
  • Christian
  • Scholasticism
  • Rationalism
  • Empiricism
  • Idealism
  • Solipsism
  • Liberalism
  • Evolutionism (biology is just the tip of the iceberg)
  • Pragmatism
  • Materialism
  • Existentialism
  • Postmodernism AKA Logical Positivism
  • "New Scientific" philosophy
To which I would add that branch of rationalism I call "sensibilism". I judge things by "is that sensible?" To some it may represent a merger of existentialism with logical positivism, in that "sensible" can mean "of the senses" equally as "making sense logically". It has been fashionable for 50+ years, when any discussion gets too deep and people disagree, particularly if religion or politics were brought up, for someone to say, "Well, I have my own philosophy." Taken to its logical end, this means there are actually some 7 billion philosophies out there, which means philosophy is an illusion also. Ha! Thought so.

I came away from the book with less than I had when I began, but that seems to be the author's intent.

1 comment:

Bleeding Poet said...

Your intelligence is magnificent and visionary!!!