Ionesco & the Limits of Philosophy

New Criterion, May 2008 | Go to article overview
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Ionesco & the Limits of Philosophy


Recently I read a short polemical book by a political philosopher in which he claimed that the works of Shakespeare, while entertaining and emotionally engaging, lacked intellectual content by comparison with the works of the great philosophers. If it were wisdom and knowledge that one was after, it was to the latter that one would turn. Literature was for entertainment, intelligent or not as the case might be. What applied to Shakespeare must, afortiori, apply to all other literature, for by general consent the works of Shakespeare contain the richest description of the human condition ever written. Nor do we seriously expect that body of work ever to be surpassed. This being the case, philosophy was for thinkers, literature for those in need of light relief from the hard work of genuine thought.

This view, with which I am not sympathetic, supposes that everything truly important can be said, or is best said, in straightforwardly propositional fashion. It is to suppose that the mind always works best and deepest in explicit rather than in implicit mode. The greatest chess player is the one who is capable of calculating the greatest number of the consequences of the greatest number of moves ahead, rather than the one who takes the situation in at a glance. I find this view almost Gradgrindian in spirit, even though it must be admitted that there are few facts in Plato or Kant.

The question of the relative strength of the illumination provided by philosophy and literature had recently been in my mind even before I read the political philosopher's tract. One of the few perquisites of being a minor scribbler is that publishers sometimes send you books connected with something that you have written; and not long ago, having published an article in defense of religion from its recent detractors, though myself without religious belief, a publisher kindly sent me Owen Flanagan's The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World. As at the time I was also reading Eugene Ionesco's play Le roi se meurt (usually translated as The King Departs), I had all opportunity to compare the depth of the philosophical and literary approach to the vexed question of the meaning of life.

Owen Flanagan is Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, and distinguished in his field. He writes clearly, though not always elegantly, and occasionally resorts to expressions, such as "high-stakes psycho-poetic performance," that beg several questions. "We are," he says early on, "embodied conscious beings engaged in high-stakes psycho-poetic performances." However generously we interpret the lives of people to constitute "psycho-poetic performances," the question of whether anything at all is "high-stakes" is precisely what is at issue. Is life full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, or is it not? That is the question.

Professor Flanagan puts the issue dearly in his opening sentence. "What sense," he asks, "can be made of my wish to live in a genuinely meaningfully [sic] way, to live a life that really matters, that makes a positive and lasting contribution, if my life is exhausted by my prospects as a finite material being living in a material world?" In his opinion, this is the really hard question of philosophy, much harder than that of consciousness. He is a physicalist, and believes that consciousness is an emergent property of matter arranged in a certain way. The question of how it does so is not yet settled, but that it does so is for him settled beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, the metaphysical status of consciousness is no longer a serious question to be pondered.

Whatever the precise metaphysical relation between brain and mind, I am forced as a doctor (and against my wishes) to agree with him. Let me illustrate why. When a patient in nay hospital began to behave in a bizarre and aggressive way, as a consequence of paranoid ideas and hallucinations, that was uncharacteristic of him, and he was found to have a low level of sodium in his blood, the fact that he calmed down when that level returned to normal meant that we doctors felt that his bizarre behavior had been sufficiently explained.

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