Tag Archives: philosophy

Sherlock Holmes and the Man of Reason

10 Oct

I was on my way back from the library the other day when I realised something pretty crazy about everyone’s favourite detective-in-a-deerstalker and our social conception of knowledge.

So if you’re sitting comfortably, I will attempt to explain, according to my recently acquired and somewhat hazy understanding of alternative feminist epistemologies.

Sherlock Holmes – Conan Doyle’s and especially the current BBC incarnation of same – is the quintessential Man of Reason. He eschews emotions because emotions cloud reason. He seeks objectivity; truth; understanding. He believes he can arrive at knowledge through deduction and intuition. He has a method, and the method will always produce results providing he can adhere to it. Knowledge is of things, and these things are clear and discrete objects which exist on a plane separate from sensation and emotion. He is, also, as it happens, a man.

Sherlock sounds a lot like the kind of guy Descartes was thinking of when he outlined his philosophy exactly as I’ve just described above.

All well and good, you may be thinking. Sherlock is actually a reincarnated 17th century French philosopher. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, Benedict Cumberbatch. But here’s the thing. Descartes was one of the first – certainly not the only one, but certainly a big deal – in the reformulation of ‘reason’ as a non-feminine trait.

Wait, what? I hear you cry. Maybe you’re saying ‘but women ARE emotional and less good at reason’ (in which case, allow me to disagree wholeheartedly; go and do some hardcore reading). Maybe you’re saying ‘we can’t pin all that on poor old Descartes’ (in which case, you’re not wrong. I’m using him because his critique looks so eerily familiar). Maybe you’re saying ‘OK. Explain.’. In which case, I will.

The 17th century was a bit of a scientific turning point for the West. Up until this stage, ‘science’ wasn’t really delineated by gender, except in women’s access to learning it. If anything, it was pretty effeminate in that its biggest audience was women and many of its major funders were women (the salons of France in particular gave rise to a lot of scientific texts and were very much written for this audience). Science wasn’t really carried out in a particularly empirical or rigorous way; it just sort of happened based on what people already knew and what they were interested in. Science wasn’t connected with a style of thought. Science is from the Latin ‘scientia’, which is the noun formed from the verb ‘scio’, ‘I know’. Science is just stuff we know.

For a long time prior to this (again in the West), woman had been generally considered man’s ‘helpmate’, thanks to the dualisms of Aristotle (cheers, Aristotle) and subsequent interpretations of him by Christian scholars like St Thomas Aquinas, etc. Woman is definitely not the equal of man at this point in history; whenever she becomes threateningly close to some modicum of fair treatment, a backlash is instigated which confines her once again to the field, the drawing room, the non-male environment, etc.

So, the stage is set for the arrival of Descartes, and then, not long after, Sir Francis Bacon (not the modern sculptor; the founder of the Royal Society). Descartes identifies what he believes is the way one should acquire knowledge. At the very root of this is the ability to shuck off the emotions like some great big emotionless snake (my simile, in case you hadn’t realised) and reach mental and therefore metaphysical transcendence through reason and the acquisition of knowledge. Bacon does something similar – empirical research, conducted according to methodology and rigorous attention to detail – is prioritised over superstition, belief and the substantiation of knowledge only on the basis of what we wish to see or think to be true.

On the face of it, this all sounds pretty damn good. Right? Objectivity, empiricism and correlation with subsequent studies are all features of what these days we could conceivably call good scientific research.

Well. Let’s go back to the status of women. And let’s go back, too, to Aristotle and his dualisms. Man, for Aristotle, has reason. What does woman have? Emotion; passion. And what does Aristotle (and basically everyone since) think about women? Well, they’re inferior to men, aren’t they. So as soon as a doctrine of knowledge is created which says that ultimate knowledge of the universe and the nature of things can be arrived at by abstracting oneself from the emotions and employing reason, women are in a bit of a fix. Christianity (and, let’s face it, most religions) holds that women can’t ‘not be’ emotional. And now philosophy is sort of claiming that one can’t reach a metaphysical eternity unless one recognises and rejects emotion. Either way, women can’t obtain transcendence. They’re just too weepy. Fuck. Oh, and women can’t do science, either, because science is knowing stuff, and women can’t know anything when those pesky emotions keep getting in the way.

It’s at this point in history that Man as scientist and Woman as non-scientist is articulated. It is of course ingrained over the course of many years and many further theorists, scientists, writers and philosophers. And it’s self-fulfilling, too, because if you keep telling women that we can’t do science, we lose interest in trying. And it works in the other direction, of course – keep telling men that emotions are ‘girly’ and they lose interest in connecting with them. How successful we’ve been about turning around this trend is not really what I’m writing about here, so let’s get back to Sherlock.

As described, Sherlock is pretty Cartesian in his approach to knowledge. He thinks he can deduce and intuit everything. One of his favourite mantras (in the TV series at least) is ‘people lie’. He has no time for emotion. And we as viewers accept this. Sherlock can deduce everything. His extreme objectivity is genuinely capable of ultimate knowledge.

Watson, on the other hand, frequently doesn’t have a clue what is going on. And he is definitely emotional. He’s not unintelligent – far from it; he’s a doctor, after all – but he can’t deconstruct and reconstruct in the way Sherlock can. And we accept that, too. The Man of Reason is an ideal, but he’s pretty unattainable for most people.

So, Sherlock, the Man of Reason, is the ultimate knower. He makes no secret of his complete disdain for all other opinions or theories of knowledge. He can know everything, because the books and TV shows require that he gets there eventually (although his excuse that he doesn’t know about the solar system because it’s ‘not important’ in an episode in S1 is pretty incredible). But here’s the thing, and I’m sure even hardcore fans won’t mind me saying this (I know this because I am one myself): Sherlock is a bit of a cock. He *cannot* use his emotions. And yet – he can still seemingly know everything.

This makes it all the more frustrating that he has to ‘win’ against (or on behalf of, I suppose) Irene Adler in the S2E1 A Scandal in Belgravia. Oops! The screenwriters just totally reconfirmed everyone’s bias that only knowledge derived through reason is good enough to win the day. Knowledge that has any connection to emotions is just not going to cut it. Watson, I’m looking at you here.

The Man of Reason knows. He knows everything. But he doesn’t know emotion.

What does that say about what we – 21st century, multicultural, lovely Britain, think of as ‘knowledge’? And if knowledge is power – what does that say about who is powerful?

I’ll leave that one with you. 

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Time for some more writing

8 Jun

The other week I wrote about the troubling concept of Time.

There was a lot of stuff I didn’t put in to it (partly for length reasons, partly for relevance reasons and partly because I forgot) but I was going to leave it be, since, in the words of E from The Incredibles, ‘I never look back, darling, it distracts from the ‘now’’.

However, I was just casually browsing the interwebz, as one does (my browsing tends to focus on news websites of various provenance) when I came across this Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/06/time-reborn-lee-smolin-review

It’s a review of a book by the popular physicist Lee Smolin. The book is called ‘Time Reborn’ and in it, so it would seem, he argues against the accepted orthodoxy in the physics world that time is simply an invention of the human mind. Time is real, he claims. It has real consequences and real effects. The argument put forward in the book (and therefore, the review) is that physicists have become bewitched by mathematical timelessness. In a mathematical model, there is no reason for time to exist (it only distorts results, after all). 2 + 2 = 4 is a timeless truth. A square is always a square. These words are a bit clunky (what does ‘always’ mean when there is no time?) but you get the idea, I hope. Time isn’t relevant in a world of numbers, curves and models.

But this model world is not the real world. Physics is the study of what is real. Brief etymology lesson here: mathematics comes from the Greek ‘mathemata’ (μαθηματα), or ‘things which are knowable’. Physics comes from the Greek ‘physis/phusis’ (φυσις) or ‘things which are naturally’. It’s easy to apply the mathematical models that are increasingly being found for ‘natural’ phenomena and to forget that these natural phenomena do not exist in a vacuum. To quote from the article: ‘in reality, in the domain of things that do exist, time is inescapable’. Mathematical rules carry ‘the trace of the metaphysical fantasy of transcendence from our earthly world’. We’re so busy thinking about numbers we forget that we’ve grown old doing so.

In my last post I was talking about the concept of Time because as far as I could see, a ‘timeline’ was (/is?) a self-imposed restriction designed to allow for reminiscence in one direction and forward planning in the other. I hadn’t realised I’d gone all ‘mathematical’ about it. I was deriving most of my arguments from Plato, if I’m honest, with all his chat about Forms and timeless constants and stuff. There’s probably an extremely interesting point to be made there about the influence of Platonic philosophy on all further schools of Western learning, but that’s not really my field, so I’ll leave it to others.

Anyway. I concluded that Time is itself timeless, but our passage through it is what ages and ruins us. Sort of like walking through a barren desert which seems to stretch on and on forever, on all sides. Which is, I suppose, a sort of curious half-way house between this mathematical ‘timeless’ scenario and the physical ‘reality of time’ one. I don’t quite know how I managed that, but there you go.

This timeless/not timeless fandango is a bit of a headache. But here I’m going to wave my Herodotus at you again, because actually, this is a good example of how time interacts with theoretical space and proves how damn real it really is.

So. Herodotus. A Persian deserter has come to the Lydian king with information about the Persian palace and the immense wealth contained inside. The Lydian king is, natch, quite excited about the prospect of raiding this. He asks where the Persian palace is located and how long it will take him and his army to get there. The Persian deserter draws a map.

Using the map, the Persian explains that it will take X many days to get the army from point A (current location) to point B (treasure).

This is a massive deal. A map, remember, is a timeless constant, because it shows a fixed space. But a map which you can use to indicate a potential passage of time – whoah, man. Hold the skutale[1]. That is one crazy idea. You can work out a timeframe from a picture? What kind of oracular fumes have you been inhaling, dude? Etc. Time isn’t just a thing, here. Time is a reality as demonstrated by a physical (that word again) model. This is basically the exact antithesis of all those pesky mathematical models later put forward by Newton et al, which take time back out of the equation and make space exist on its own.

Anyway, I think I’m creeping towards the conclusion that space can’t exist on its own for us to have any real understanding of it. Time makes sense of things, on a theoretical as well as a physical level. So while I’m still a big fan of the idea that Time is an entity that exists to move through us, rather than the other way around, I’m also pretty convinced that we wouldn’t get far without it.


[1] Spartan cipher stick. You’re welcome.

Orwell and Plato – sensible +/knowable

21 Jan

In Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, he describes the way we use long words too much and the effect this is having on our thought. He explains at some length – and with an admission of personal guilt – what it is people do when they write, and why this is bad.

Orwell says we can simplify language and get back to saying things with meaning. This will be the point that starts the circle[1] which will allow us to think things with meaning. Orwell says we can do this by imagining what we want to say without words – with pictures and sensations – for as long as we can. This will help us steer away from abstracted and generalised ideas, stale metaphors and vague explanations. If we have a picture in our mind, we can find the right words. Meaning should dictate language, not language meaning.

I don’t pretend to have fully understood all the facets of Orwell’s argument, but I think what he is saying is that we will continue to have boring and stale thoughts while we allow ourselves to be bound by the limits of our language (incidentally, this is a similar point to the one made in my favourite scholarly idea with which to show off, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). Making that language flowery, classically-derivative and pretentious doesn’t make our thoughts better; it just provides an easily-reached-for cartel of set collocations that have lost both their immediate meaning and their metaphorical one. Who really knows why we say ‘nose to the grindstone’ any more? And yet we still use the phrase, because it’s right there on the tip of our tongue when we want to say ‘working very hard’ and think that is insufficient.

This is all very interesting and I am sure we can agree that it would be nice to lose some of the more hackneyed turns of phrase we hear trotted out left, right and centre today [IRONY ALERT]. Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words (sorry, Orwell). Maybe we can be far more imaginative and original with the things around us.

Example: there’s a small pot of Vaseline (or petroleum jelly, if you prefer) on my desk. A moment’s thought leads me to the conclusion that it could also sort of be described as ‘coal butter’. Well, it could! Or fossil jam, if you like, though fossil jam to me sounds more like a band name dreamed up by a bunch of cynical oldies. I bet Orwell didn’t foresee that problem. Anyway, the point is surely this: application of imagination generates originality. Or as Orwell might prefer it, thinking about things makes new stuff.

This is all fascinating stuff, but I have to admit that what I’m principally interested in here is the idea that the sensory experience of something is a prior experience to the linguistic one. And why am I interested in this? Well, it’s because I love Plato. Love him. Well, love talking about him. And Plato would probably be very interested in having a chat with Orwell about his ideas.

Plato is consistently characterised by people who don’t know much about Plato as a chap who had some ideas about things called ‘Forms’ and made an allegory about a cave and some shadows. Happily, this is basically all you need for me to explain this. Here we go.

Plato’s Forms start to emerge as a philosophical idea in his early dialogues, when he has his speakers try and understand the true essence of a particular abstract concept, eg holiness or virtue (these words don’t make sense as such in English; in Greek they carry far more weight). To get to what is meant by these ideas, the speakers effectively play word games – Socrates catches people out by saying ‘well, if holiness is doing what is pleasing to the gods, then all the gods must agree what holiness is – and yet you say that Zeus would condemn patricide, even though he is himself a patricide of his own divine father!’[2]. Basically, Socrates gets off on tying his interlocutors in knots of verbal reasoning. But in his defence – Socrates was trying to get at the reality that underpins abstract ideas by stripping away the ambivalent mists surrounding them. Socrates asks ‘what is holiness?’ and he is not satisfied to be told that holiness is what is pleasing to the gods. Which gods? For how much of the time? Is a holy act the same as holiness? How? What colour is holy? Etc.

Plato’s early dialogues usually end in what is called ‘aporia’ by people who like to sound knowledgeable about this kind of thing. It literally means ‘pathlessness’ or ‘resourcelessness’. The idea is that the interlocutors are so confused by the lexical argument that they can’t follow through with the logic. It isn’t until Plato’s middle and later dialogues that Socrates takes a more commanding role and behaves like a teacher rather than an irritating (and incorrigible) child. In the Republic, Socrates and his mates are searching for ‘justice’. Straight away they run into difficulties when a particularly argumentative chap called Thrasymachus says the opposite of what they’re all used to hearing – he comes right out and says that justice is actually bad for the individual. Shock and horror abound. So Socrates says he will attempt to show that justice, in and of itself, is intrinsically good – not for what it brings in the form of material rewards, but for the simple wholesomeness of its existence as a concept.

You might be thinking I’ve lost sight of Orwell in all this Plato-loving. Bear with me, I’m getting there. On the face of it, it might sound like Orwell and Plato are on pretty much the same sort of lines – peeling back difficult language to get to true meaning, etc. Well, yes and no. Orwell has this idea that if we look at something – whether in real life or in our mind’s eye – we can see it for what it actually is, and describe it as such, without resorting to tired, prefabricated phrases. But Plato argues (through Socrates[3]) that all of our words – as we know how to use them – are insufficient to capture the true meaning of something. We haven’t been trained properly. And what sort of training does Plato recommend? It’s a pretty exhausting curriculum, but top on his list – the final qualification – is ‘dialectic’. If you can construct an argument worthy of foxing even Socrates’ logical powers, you have the brainpower to tease out the essence of abstract concepts using only words.

So to simplify slightly – Orwell says we can understand something in a new way by not relying on words. Plato says we can only understand things through our power to use words. Plato is highly suspicious of sensory experiences. And this is where the cave comes in. Here we go, guys. Deep breaths.

Socrates introduces the cave allegory with two other allegories referred to as the ‘line’ and the ‘sun’. They are all intended to make clear the point that he expands on in great detail in the cave allegory. In the line allegory, he divides the world up into two ‘realms’ (scholars argue about whether this means there are two worlds, two realities, etc etc). One of these realms is the sensory realm. The other is the intelligible realm. Each of these is also divided into two. The sensory realm is composed of shadows of images and images. The intelligible realm is composed of thoughts about things and things themselves. The first two parts of the line correspond to the second two parts of the line. Confused? Don’t worry. All will soon become clear. But you notice, I hope, that seeing things – the sensory realm – is considered to be less ‘real’ than forming things with words in the intelligible realm.

The sun allegory relates to what Plato thinks of as the ultimate Form – the form of the ‘good’. This is rather tricky but it’ll come in handy when we put the line and the cave together. Basically, in the same way that the sun nourishes everything and everything can trace its life back to the sun, thus do all forms and all things related to forms derive from the good [this is the subject of some serious argument about consistency and opposites of forms, but let’s not tangle with that today].

Socrates says: imagine there is a cave, with people bound hand and foot, looking at a wall. They have a fire behind them which casts its light on the wall. From time to time, unnamed, unknown others pass between their backs and the fire, carrying objects. The shadows of these objects are reflected onto the wall and the prisoners in the cave name them, assuming these shadows are the ultimate reality of those objects, because they don’t know any different. Now imagine one of these prisoners somehow breaks free. The first thing he does is turn around and realise that what he thought was a pot was in fact only a shadow of a pot, and so on. He is curious. He leaves the cave, past the fire, and emerges into the daylight beyond the cave. At first he is blinded by the light and can hardly make out anything around him, but soon he comes to see trees and mountains and the sky and one day, he will be able to see the sun (nb – don’t try this at home. Remember, kids, it’s an allegory). The former prisoner realises how far he has come from seeing shadows of objects on the wall of a cave, since he can now see the source of all things – the sun creates the light that illuminates all the things that truly are, just as the fire created the light that illuminated the things that aren’t. The prisoner goes back down to the cave to try and teach the others. We can leave the allegory here, because it turns into an allegory for why philosophers are misunderstood.

Hopefully you can see how these three allegories tie together. The cave is the big story that the line neatly describes, but with the added bonus that it draws on the explanation provided by the sun allegory. The ‘cave’ is the sensory realm, where we rely on shadows and material things. The world outside the cave is the intelligible realm, where we come to know forms and ultimately, the form of the good. A very simple way to imagine all these stages is this: you can have a reflection of a tree (shadow). You can have a tree (image/object). You can have true beliefs about what constitutes a tree (idea). And finally, you can have the form of the tree, the tree itself. The ultimate tree from which all our understanding of what a ‘tree’ is derives.

So, as I said, Plato is suspicious of the sensory realm. He goes on to complain in the Republic that senses can be misleading, that relying on them dulls the understanding and drive to solve problems and can be downright morally dangerous. A big chunk of the final book of the Republic is dedicated to an attack on painting and poetry. Pictures don’t show the world as it truly is, says Plato. They show you what the artist thinks the world ought to look like. And if the artist knew what a bed or a bow or a table or a beautiful woman really looked like, he would spend his time using that knowledge in a useful way. If Homer was such a great military tactician, Plato argues, why isn’t he remembered for being a really awesome general? Because, Plato says, Homer knew what the uneducated multitude expect of a military tactician, and that’s how he wrote his battle scenes in the Iliad. If he was a top general, he could not, by definition, be a poet too. Fazam. Homer is shot down. A little apologetically, it’s true. Nevertheless, Plato only wants instructive and morally upright stories in his ideal city. None of this ‘shadows of images’ stuff that Homer and the tragic poets peddle. Don’t trust your senses, folks! The reality of forms is the only reality there is.

So. Back to Orwell. Our phrases are old and tired and this is stunting our originality. How do we change this? By going back to the visual experience and redefining the language. Can we trust our visual experience? Plato says no – we can only arrive at truth through discussion. So where does all this leave us?

Well, we could just forget Plato. He’s pretty old, after all. Orwell is far more recent, and if they don’t seem to agree, we could just jettison the bits we don’t like. There is that option. But I think there’s a better one. I think they reconcile rather nicely. Here’s how.

I reckon what Orwell and Plato are both driving at is that there is a fundamental essence to everything that defies immediate definition. In Plato’s time, the way to deal with this was to talk about it. In our time, we have become desensitised to it because everyone else already did the talking. Orwell isn’t asking us to question our ontological understanding of the world, he just wants us to look at it – to really look at it – and think of the best way to use the words we have at our disposal, every time. Plato goes deeper, showing us that there is more to life than the shadows and images to which we cling, and if we talk about it – really talk about it – we can work out what it is. Orwell is trying to drive us away from abstracts and generalisations, while Plato is trying to prove the existence of the most abstract and generalised things we can encounter – but both are demanding our attention to detail. Perhaps the best way to think of Orwell and Plato is in terms of the cave and the line allegories I described. Orwell is our man in the cave, telling us to look at the shadows. Don’t they remind you of anything? Is that really a pot you are seeing? Can’t you think of a better way to describe it? Plato is the one loitering outside the cave, saying look at that tree! See how its leaves face the sun! Smell it, touch it, experience the reality of the tree![4]. We need people of both sorts in our lives, driving us to the essence of things – be they intelligible or merely sensible. And the great proof of this? Why, it’s Plato’s own allegories. If you can explain your understanding of the universe and everything in it via a short narrative about a man in a cave, you know how important both words and images are.

So – See! Think! And better yet, combine them and write beautiful, compelling, intelligent prose. Good night and good luck.


[1] I know that’s probably not allowed by the laws of maths or physics or something, but we all know that the law of drawing says you have to start a circle somehow

[2] He doesn’t quite say it like this but it’s a reasonable approximation. See the Euthyphro for the whole argument

[3] It’s not clear that Socrates’ ideas ever progressed to this stage in his lifetime; Plato has a lot to answer for in terms of putting words in his mouth…

[4] Ok, so my characterisation makes him sound a bit of a hippy. Deal with it).