INTERVIEW WITH GEOFFREY KLEMPNER
6th August 2010
Anon: It's coming up to the 15th anniversary of your philosophy school, and also your 60th birthday. Any thoughts?
GK: Well, I've been doing this for a quarter of my life. I suppose it's rather daunting when you put it that way. I always thought of the distance learning project as just a stepping stone. But I never did succeed in forming any idea of what it was a stepping stone to. I just kept going, putting one foot in front of another. And it brought me here.
Anon: Your Pathway.
GK: I thought of the name, 'Pathways to Philosophy' early on. The story is told in bits and pieces: In Philosophy From a Distance (1997), Can Philosophy Be Taught? (1999), Pathways to Philosophy: Seven Years On (2003), and The Pathways School of Philosophy (2007).
Anon: When you started, did you envisage how things would turn out?
GK: When I launched my project in 1995 I didn't realize how important the internet would be. Browsers were something new. I didn't even have my own computer!
Anon: Any regrets?
GK: No. Honestly, no. I don't feel as if there was any point where I did anything other than what was necessary. Somehow, all this seems inevitable.
Anon: A 'man of destiny' then?
GK: There have been times when I thought that way. But not now. It's a convenient fiction to think that our lives have a pre-ordained purpose and meaning, that we're 'going somewhere'. Jack Kerouac wrote, 'All you do is head straight for the grave. Skin covers the skull a while. Stretch that skull skin and smile.' I quote that in Is it Rational to Fear Death?.
Anon: You're smiling.
GK: Why not?
Anon: It's a pretty dark thought, rather nihilistic.
GK: Marcus Aurelius said something similar. 'When death smiles at you, you smile back,' or something along those lines.
Anon: But Aurelius held that life had a definite purpose. He believed in a life of Stoic virtue.
Anon: Are you a Stoic?
GK: I wouldn't describe myself as such.
Anon: What are your views on Stoicism?
GK: I'm not sure what I think about Stoicism.
Anon: Come on, you must have a view. You've read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, did you enjoy it? Did it make any impact on you? Would you say that Stoicism a viable philosophy today?
GK: Yes, I did write about this in my Glass House notebook. The day I read Aurelius, I was feeling depressed. You'd never guess from what I wrote. It was all I could do to drag the paperback of the bookshelf, sit out on the front porch and start reading. It helped get me through the day. The next day, it was work as usual. Maybe that was down to Aurelius.
Anon: How appropriate, 'Stoa' is the Greek for 'porch'.
GK: That hadn't occurred to me! I suppose, now you come to mention it, that Stoicism is a kind of 'outdoor' philosophy, the kind that lends itself to gazing around at the wonders of nature, that sort of thing. Reminds me how I used to go on long walks with my philosophical notebook.
Anon: Maybe you should get out more.
GK: I wonder about that too. Like my photography. The reason I first applied to do a degree in philosophy was so I could have more time for photography. For a while, the two activities seemed bound together. My two halves, so to speak.
Anon: Did you have any success with photography?
GK: I took a portfolio to Creative Camera. I was doing my D.Phil by then. It was the late 70s. Judy Goldhill, who was Joint Editor along with the founder, Colin Osman, selected some photos she liked. While we were chatting, Colin put his head round the door. I told him that I was writing a thesis on philosophy. 'Why?' was his only reply. That was it. I was not altogether surprised when the photographs didn't appear.
Anon: And then?
GK: In the end, I never really got anywhere with photography. Despite repeated efforts. It was always something I seemed to be chasing that was just out of reach. I've talked about that in my Metaphysics of the Photograph.
Anon: I'm not sure how seriously to take that piece. At times, I can detect a note of irony, as if you are sending yourself up. Or maybe even the audience?
GK: I guess, most of what I write has an ironic edge. I don't think I send my students up, I do the best I can for them. But the stuff I write for a general audience, like Tentative Answers, or Glass House Philosopher, that sometimes has heavy doses of irony. Anyone can see. It's a question I've considered before. One of my students, Bob Kerrigan, once remarked that 'irony is passé'. It was a criticism. I don't know if he was right, but there's nothing worse than when you mean to be ironic and the reader just doesn't get it.
Anon: Can you give any specific examples?
GK: Well, there's the Follydiddledah.com site. The juxtapositions of the philosophical quotes and images are not what you'd expect, an image illuminating the meaning of the text. More often than not, the image contradicts the text, or exaggerates it to absurdity.
Anon: OK, an example of that?
GK: There was an American feminist philosopher who took strong objection to some of the content on the site. One page she particularly didn't like was where I juxtaposed a quote from Marx's essay 'On Money' from his 1844 Manuscripts, with the painting of the philosopher Diogenes by John William Waterhouse. In the painting, three young women, who look like aristocrats, are laughing at Diogenes, sitting in his barrel, stern expression on his face. The feminist just assumed that this was about the vanity of wealth, and rich air-head women who have nothing better to do than parade around with their parasols and all their finery. But I wasn't mocking them, I was laughing with them at Diogenes and at Marx.
Anon: So, what is your attitude to money?
GK: Nothing wrong with it at all. I wish I had more!
Anon: You don't mean that.
GK: Yes I do. I mean, no, there's lots of things I won't do for money. I think Marx was basically right in what he said. In a capitalist society, work is wage slavery. I agree with that.
Anon: But, you're a capitalist not a communist if you have to pick a side. Otherwise what is all that philosophy of business stuff about?
GK: Yes, sure.
Anon: You seem to be contradicting yourself.
GK: Wage slavery is necessary, because there really is no alternative. 'Money makes the world go round.' I'm glad I work for myself. I've never asked for anything for free. But philosophy is about freedom, about expressing, living one's freedom or else it's worthless. I've never felt any compulsion other than my own intellectual ambition. No-one will ever tell me, 'You will be delivering a course of lectures at such-and-such a time.' I'm free of all the paraphernalia of the academic philosopher.
Anon: And now what?
GK: You mean, 'You're approaching 60, you've been doing this for 15 years. What is there left? Where is this all heading?' Which is where we came in.
Anon: You're just putting one foot in front of another.
Photograph by Geoffrey Klempner: Leica Mini-Zoom, Tri-X/ Microphen 500 ASA