Wood Paths: Articles

Pathways to Philosophy

Glass House Philosopher


by Geoffrey Klempner

[This talk was read at the Memorial Meeting for David Hamlyn, held at the Chancellor's Hall, Senate House, London on 12th January 2013. Other speakers were Dorothy Edgington, Alex Byrne, John Haldane, Nick Zangwill and Richard Sorabji.]

On the notice board on the ground floor at 14 Gower Street, amongst the library notices, lecture lists and various useful bits of information, there was a small newspaper cartoon. That would have been around 1972, when I first came to Birkbeck. An elderly gentleman in an armchair is watching TV. Behind him two women are talking. One whispers to the other, 'He used to be a philosopher but now he's retired.' I don't know who pinned it up there. Perhaps it was David himself. I imagined David sitting back, eyes glazed behind his horn rimmed spectacles. Mrs Hamlyn with tea and a hot cross bun on a tray. How absurd!

At my interview, I told David that I'd read Plato's Symposium. It wasn't the most important of Plato's dialogues, he informed me. I should read the Phaedo, or Republic, or Theaetetus. That's where the heavy stuff is, the epistemology and metaphysics. But prior to all those worthy topics, for me at least, there is a much broader question: What is so great about loving wisdom? Why be a philosopher? Either philosophy is something you engage in with every part of your being, or it isn't worth a damn. I didn't think that back then. I just needed a lifeline, and the Department threw one to me. It was something I learned, or absorbed, in my four years at Birkbeck.

What is a philosopher? It's not a truism that academic philosophers are philosophers. On the contrary, that proposition, on my reading, is perfectly deniable. At times, I have been tempted to deny it. Just as — for different, possibly interesting reasons — I have been tempted to deny that I am a philosopher on the grounds that, professionally at least, I am a sophist. You can't bat for both teams. Perhaps I am one of those rare sophists who is a true friend to philosophy. But that leaves open the question what academic philosophers are.

It's a question David asked, and even wrote a book about (Being a Philosopher: The History of a Practice, 1992). Not a point that I recall we ever discussed. As a member of the — I won't say 'old', but older guard — David was not altogether happy with current trends in academic philosophy. Davidson was not on his list of favourite philosophers. He deplored the idea that you need full mastery of first-order predicate calculus and axiomatic set theory before you can call yourself a philosopher. He would never have considered editing an edition of Mind devoted to 'The State of the Art'.

This could be the start of an interesting debate on who, if anyone, can justifiably claim to be carrying the banner of philosophy at the present point in its chequered history. Or indeed, if, as I suspect, the banner lies back there somewhere, trampled in the mud, while legions of keen, 20-something PhDs march boldly onwards, blissfully oblivious.

Just for the record. I knew David, first as teacher, during my years at Birkbeck studying for my BA, 1972-6. Three years after I'd left Birkbeck, I sought his advice while I was working on my Oxford D.Phil thesis, 'The Metaphysics of Meaning'. Then for a longer period, 1989 onwards, David sent me chapter by chapter commentaries on successive drafts of my book, originally entitled 'First Philosophy', which was eventually published by Avebury in 1994 as Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds. We met for the last time at his home in 1996 after I had launched the Pathways to Philosophy Distance Learning Project.

No other philosopher I have known personally has figured so prominently in my intellectual development. For all our differences, we came to agree on one thing: that much contemporary philosophy, including the various strands of materialism and externalism are marred by a spurious, insufficiently examined notion of objectivity and a correlative over-emphasis on language. I'm not just talking about analytic philosophy. Continental academic philosophy must bear its share of the blame. — Well, that's my take.

First, something about me. I'm not a member of the learned fraternity of academic philosophers. I don't have heroes, but if I did, the closest would be the Greek Sophist, Gorgias of Leontini. Gorgias didn't write philosophical essays or books. He composed demonstration pieces. He had a knack for dialectic, but you might say he squandered his talent. I would say his brilliance was wasted on lesser minds, I mean, his paying clients. — I almost forgot, Max Stirner. 'Saint Max' as Marx cruelly dubbed him in German Ideology, who came closer than any of his contemporaries to seeing through the claptrap of worthy ideals that the intellectual pack aspire to — or 'wheels in the head', to use Stirner's happy phrase.

My disillusionment with academic philosophy must have happened quite early on. I have a memory fragment of sitting with Ruby Meager in the Birkbeck College Refectory, and Ruby saying to me with that sly smile of hers, 'I suppose you would reject any offers of academic jobs with contumely.' I didn't know what 'contumely' meant so I had to look it up. What had I said to her that had provoked this observation? I can't remember!

Today, I run my own philosophy school. My perception of the way I am perceived, at least by academic philosophers who are aware of my existence, is as the hot dog salesman who sets up his stall outside a posh West End theatre. The management, to their dismay, discover that owing some obscure bye-law, they are powerless to move him on. I am free from all the normal constraints, the checks and balances that academics rely on to assure their customers of their integrity and authority. I do my own quality control, with a bit of help from my friends. Whenever I'm feeling in a creative mood, I author another web site. The internet has become my hunting ground.

From the outside, David and I are opposites in almost every way you can imagine. David devoted his life to academic philosophy, and rose to become a significant figure. He was a tireless worker within the system, as no doubt other speakers will tell, or have told you. And his knowledge of philosophy was encyclopaedic. Just as an illustration of this point, soon after it was published he told me that he'd proof read the entire manuscript of Ted Honderich's Oxford Companion to Philosophy. He is of course also the author of the highly respected Pelican History of Western Philosophy.

I remember visiting David at Birkbeck in 1979 after I'd successfully completed my Oxford B.Phil. I'd come for advice. While writing my B.Phil thesis, my supervisor John McDowell had given up on me — temporarily, as it turned out — when he realized that I was serious about submitting as my thesis an 11,000 word essay composed on two inch strips of paper in a pastiche of Wittgenstein. I needed David's help because turning this meagre tract into a D.Phil would be quite a proposition. I told him I was worried that I wasn't reading enough. David said something to me which took me aback. 'You can study the entire history of philosophy,' he said, 'and the only outcome is that you're left feeling that there is nothing new to say.'

This wasn't a confession on David's part. It was a warning. Don't fall into the illusion of thinking that if you perceive a lack within yourself, some way in which you fall short of what it takes to be a philosopher, that you can make up for that lack by learning what every other philosopher has said. The lack will still be there.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This was after my four years at Birkbeck, when we'd already got to know one another pretty well.

In my first year, David took us for the Presocratics and Plato, and also for one term of an Introduction to Philosophy course. There's something David used to do in those Greek Philosophy classes which says a lot about the kind of teacher he was. I've never known anyone else to do this, not many could get away with it. When he handed back an essay to a student, usually before the beginning of the lecture after we had all sat down, he would read out his pencilled comments sotto voce, the rest of us hanging on his every word:

This is a splendid go at the argument. You have made a lot of good points and you have tried very intelligently to deal with the argument. You have also obviously thought about the issues and have contributed views of your own. Excellent. There are some flaws, but that is not very important, given the general quality of the essay.

Those were David's comments on an essay I wrote about Parmenides' argument for, 'It is.' My first really big effort, I struggled with it over the Christmas and New Year holiday. For a month or more, I lived and breathed the thoughts of Parmenides. In the tube train going home after the lecture when I'd received my essay back, I had no doubt in my mind that I would become a professional philosopher. I could see my life laid out. I was giddy with joy.

The last sentence of my essay was, 'I think that Parmenides really believed in this 'Reality'. In the margin, David has written, simply, 'Yes.' He didn't mean, 'Yes, this is the way one should do philosophy, follow the argument wherever it leads regardless of the consequences.' Not at all. He meant, 'Yes, this is what Parmenides did think. But of course, as we all know, Parmenides was wrong and he should have realized this.' It illustrates one aspect of David as a philosopher. Arguments were necessary, of course, but David also valued philosophic judgement. Plato was a genius, he used to say, but Aristotle was the greater philosopher. Dialectical skill is important, and no-one shows this more brilliantly than Plato. But something else is required. What Russell called 'a robust sense of reality.'

A similar point arose in the Metaphysics lectures which David gave in my final year at Birkbeck. We were looking at F.H. Bradley's magnum opus Appearance and Reality. (How many BA students get to study Bradley today, I wonder?) You should take Bradley at his word, David told us, that the case for absolute idealism been made by the end of the third chapter, in the dialectical argument against relations. But in David's eyes that didn't make the work any less worthy of study. I still consider reading Bradley one of the highest peaks in my experience as a student of philosophy.

At the meeting, three years after I'd left Birkbeck in 1979 when we talked about the history of philosophy, David said something else to me which, although I didn't realize this at the time, was to assume great significance. My D.Phil thesis was about rejecting what I called the 'metaphysical illusions' of a transcendent ego and transcendent truth. But I puzzled over the fact that even after you've rejected the ego illusion, it refuses to go away. In reply, David quoted something to me from Wittgenstein's 1914-16 Notebooks: 'There are two godheads: the world and my independent I' (8 July 1916).

By the time of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein had succeeded in convincing himself that, as he put it, 'The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it' (5.64). Well it does if you're a transcendental solipsist, who thinks that the last word on objectivity is Kant's empirical realism.

As the story goes, as I myself believed, Wittgenstein's later argument against a private language in Philosophical Investigations gives the lie to that notion. As I wrote in my D.Phil thesis, the private language argument appears like a wall, blocking the path of one's thoughts. You look for a way past the wall. But then you reach the wall, only to find you are facing in the other direction. Was that the last word?

Two years after I'd completed my D.Phil, the penny finally dropped. An illusion that by its intrinsic nature cannot be made to go away is no mere illusion. That's why not a few philosophers refuse to accept that McTaggart's B-series states the whole truth about time (as, e.g., Mellor claims). But exactly the same applies, as I now reasoned, to the self. I am other to others who are other to me. But that doesn't make the relationship symmetrical. The starting point of the dialectic, my subjective standpoint, is not a ladder you can just throw away.

By this time I was living in Hove on the south coast, signing on the dole. I was prepared to do this for the rest of my life, if necessary. It was beginning to look as if that's how long it would take to write my book. Then I moved up to Sheffield for a change of scenery, and lucky chance gave me the opportunity to teach a WEA class. My WEA students became the guinea pigs for the first draft of my book.

In a letter to David dated 19th September 1989, I wrote:

Thank you for your letter, and for agreeing to let me send you my 'talks'. It does help enormously to know that I am writing for a critical audience. In a conversation we had after you read an early draft of my D.Phil thesis, you made a remark about the two 'godheads' which set in motion the line of thought which has come to fruition here.

There followed a lengthy correspondence. David's long, carefully drafted letters to me in response to the latest chapter became the model for the service I was later to offer, right up to the present day, to students taking the six Pathways programs and the University of London International Programme for the Diploma and BA in Philosophy. That is the greatest debt that I owe him: to his indefatigable example.

David urged me to try to get the work published. He was disappointed when OUP rejected it, after much delay, and despite two favourable readers' reports. I circulated a draft to academic philosophers and received a few desultory replies. Eventually, I settled for Avebury, who were later to publish David's last book, Understanding Perception (1996). Naive Metaphysics appeared in December 1994. In the Avebury flyer, David wrote:

Geoffrey Klempner has produced an essay in metaphysics which not only has great depth but also constitutes a vindication of the subject... It is a work of very considerable originality, not easy perhaps but one of unmistakable importance and standing... It is perhaps some time since such an impressive exercise in metaphysics has appeared on the scene, and anyone concerned with philosophy in its most abstract and profound aspects should welcome this book and find interest and stimulation in it.

At the only academic interview I ever attended, soon after Naive Metaphysics appeared, Stephen Clark of Liverpool University remarked that my book, 'wasn't that bad'. The interview panel seemed most interested in my contention that the existence of my subjective world is proof of the non-existence of God, which I think you'll agree is a novel response to Descartes.

Sheffield University offered me a final year Metaphysics course over 28 weeks, which became the first draft of the Pathways Metaphysics program. It was a temporary appointment. In October 1995, I launched Pathways, and over the next two years wrote six book length programs, which have been the basis of my living right up to the present day.

I was too busy, too involved with Pathways, to worry why I hadn't heard anything about my book. Perhaps reviews did appear, which I have not seen to this day? Then, in 1998, by pure chance while doing an internet search, I came across a reference to a review that had appeared in 1995 in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

It was bad. As I wrote in Issue 172 of Philosophy Pathways (9 June 2012):

The editor of the Reviews page had evidently felt the review wasn't bad enough, and decided to pep it up with a cartoon illustration by the artist Stuart Helm, whose meaning was all-too clear. The cartoon depicts a worried man peering over a wall, with a question mark on his cheek. The top of his skull has been removed and a labourer with a wheelbarrow is shovelling material into the cavity. As the review concludes, 'one is advised to look elsewhere for metaphysical instruction.'

The most memorable sentence from the review is,

Klempner is to be admired for seeing the worth of system-building, but the opacity and interminability of his text subvert the effort required to make even minimal sense of it.

A badge of honour, some would say. Worthy of the customary bowl of soup tipped over the reviewer's head should we ever chance to meet at some dinner party. If anyone, including David, who knew me had seen the review, they evidently felt it better not to mention it. Perhaps out of a sense of tact. Or maybe no-one reads the THES?

Which leaves me with a puzzle, or puzzles. Which I will not attempt to resolve. In any event, I have no intention of writing another book. The Pathways School of Philosophy will be my legacy. For the inspiration for that, as for much else, I owe a debt of gratitude to David Hamlyn.

© Geoffrey Klempner 2013